Thursday, February 17, 2011

Freed Defendant Blasts Prosecutors in $150 Million Suit 

abbar Collins, the jailhouse lawyer whose dogged investigation persuaded a federal judge to free him after he had served 15 years in prison for murder, sued New York City, Brooklyn prosecutors and city detectives for $150 million in damages yesterday.

Mr. Collins charged that prosecutors within the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes "had wrongfully withheld a key witness' recantation, had knowingly coerced and relied on false testimony and argument at trial, had knowingly suppressed exculpatory and impeachment evidence, and had acted affirmatively to cover up such misconduct for 15 years."

The civil rights complaint in Collins v. The City of New York, 11-civ-766, names as "the principal individual defendant" Michael F. Vecchione, a mainstay of Mr. Hynes' office who is now head of the rackets bureau and who led the 1995 prosecution that secured Mr. Collins' "unconstitutional conviction."

But it also alleges that the city is liable for the unlawful actions of defendant police detectives and prosecutors who acted in conformity with "affirmative or de facto municipal policies, practices and customs" or because as their employer, the city showed "deliberate indifference" to their misdeeds. Rather than disciplining the employees, the complaint says, Mr. Hynes and other policy makers "praised and promoted them, thereby encouraging future constitutional violations to occur."

The district attorney's office reported to Eastern District Judge Dora Irizzary just weeks before a June 8, 2010, hearing that the prosecution had inadvertently failed to disclose to Mr. Collins that one of its key witnesses recanted prior to changing his mind and testifying at trial. But Mr. Hynes later that day staunchly defended Mr. Vecchione's conduct, declining to investigate how the case had been handled (NYLJ, June 9, 2010).

The 106-page complaint filed in the Eastern District by attorney Joel B. Rudin also seeks damages individually from six other Brooklyn assistant district attorneys, two detectives assigned to the district attorney's office and two NYPD detectives. It lists 10 state and federal causes of action, including malicious prosecution and deprivation, denial of due process and a fair trial, fraud and negligent representation and—against the city—negligent training, hiring and supervision.

The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office declined to comment.

The lawsuit, which has been assigned to Judge Frederic Block, faces substantial hurdles.

Prosecutors are absolutely immune from suit for any actions, even misconduct, taken in the course of their official function. In an effort to surmount that problem, the complaint contends that in state and federal post-conviction proceedings, Mr. Vecchione was no longer functioning as a prosecutor, but as a fact witness.

There also are limitations on city liability. To prevail, Mr. Collins must show that the city maintained what is tantamount to an "official" policy of violating civil rights.

Mr. Collins was arrested on Feb. 6, 1994, and charged with the robbery and murder of Abraham Pollack, a landlord and member of Brooklyn's Hasidic community, at a time when it was criticizing the police for laxity in investigating crimes against its members by blacks.

According to the complaint, police settled on Mr. Collins as their principal suspect after receiving a tip, despite the fact that others had been fingered for the crime. By the time his trial began about a year later, Mr. Vecchione allegedly was encountering problems with his three principal witnesses.

One had recanted, another was refusing to testify and a third was beyond the court's jurisdiction in Puerto Rico in violation of the terms of his probation, the complaint says. It charges that the police and prosecutors secretly coerced witnesses to give false and unreliable testimony.

Edwin Oliva initially told the police that he had overheard Mr. Collins plotting the killing of the landlord with another person, but then changed his story.


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