Westchester DA Moves To Vacate 26 Convictions Following Release of Police Whistleblower’s Secret Recordings
DA Mimi Rocah’s investigation was triggered by a 2020 Gothamist series unearthing allegations of rampant police corruption in Mount Vernon, New York.
Three years after a Gothamist series unearthed claims of false arrests and rampant police corruption in Mount Vernon, Westchester County District Attorney Mimi Rocah is asking the court system to dismiss 26 convictions, which her office has determined were tainted by discrepancies in police paperwork, as well as prosecutors’ failure to turn over key pieces of evidence to the accused.
That series by this reporter, which relied on a police whistleblower’s secret recordings, played a major role in the ouster of Rocah’s predecessor, whose office failed to disclose the tapes to dozens of defendants it continued to prosecute, despite the fact that they contained explosive admissions and statements from officers who did not know they were being recorded.
Those statements included an account from an officer, who admitted to safeguarding crack for a drug dealer his team had allied with, and described his colleagues in the narcotics unit framing innocent people for drug sales. They also included a conversation in which another officer described standing by as her colleagues assaulted a resident and then arrested him on trumped-up drug charges.
During her 2020 election campaign, Rocah promised to get to the bottom of the scandal. She won handily and took office in Jan. 2021. Now, after a nearly two-year investigation, Rocah’s revamped Conviction Review Unit is notifying the courts that it has uncovered more prosecutor disclosure failures and troubling police practices in a drug operation, rendering 26 people’s past convictions and one defendant’s pending charges untenable.
“As a result of these investigations, I am proud of the subsequent actions we have taken to help restore even a measure of public faith in our justice system,” said Rocah in a statement. “These investigations and outcomes reflect our strong commitment to meeting the highest standards of integrity for our convictions and the policies and practices of this Office and our law enforcement partners.”
Those 26 dubious convictions stemmed from a 2017 narcotics operation that Gothamist first scrutinized in its series, and which Rocah’s team determined “was apparently referred” to in the secret recordings by a Mount Vernon police officer, who described the narcotics unit falsely incriminating people in drug operations.
4/ In another call, Officer Avion Lee describes how her colleague brutally beat up a man in Mount Vernon. She said her supervisor told them to concoct a story about a drug deal to justify the encounter. Listen to the recording of her here:https://t.co/76MGLu4dcj— George Joseph (@georgejoseph94) June 3, 2020
According to a new report published by Rocah’s office, the Conviction Review Unit found “discrepancies, inconsistencies and contradictions” in police reports about the drug sales purportedly observed during the operation. In many cases, the district attorney’s report continued, the prosecution’s files had “either no corroboration, or no sufficiently reliable corroboration” of the alleged transactions.
The review also found that cases from the operation involved around 30 prosecutors from different parts of the office who were operating “without sufficient centralized oversight,” hamstringing critical information-sharing with defense attorneys.
“This inadvertently created a situation in which material and potentially exculpatory information learned in the case was not disclosed to defense attorneys in other Operation cases,” the district attorney’s report noted. “In certain instances, the prosecutors did not come into possession of all of the reports that were directly related to their Operation cases during the pendency of the case, and, therefore, those reports were never provided to the defense.”
As a result of those arrests, 16 people served time behind bars, some for several years in jail and state prison.
In response to this disclosure breakdown, upon taking office, Rocah implemented a “vertical” prosecution system, allowing individual assistant district attorneys to keep cases from start to finish, curbing the likelihood of key information getting lost during case handoffs. Rocah’s team also created a new bureau dedicated to improving their disclosure practices and complying with New York’s transformative 2019 discovery changes.
“These steps help increase prosecutorial accountability and efficient communication in order to prevent disclosure issues in the first place,” the DA’s report notes.
Joe Murray, lawyer for whistleblower Murashea Bovell, a Mount Vernon police officer who is still on the force, praised the decision.
“This is vindication for all the efforts my client took to bring this misconduct to light, despite the danger it posed to himself,” said Murray. “Everyone knew what was happening from the commissioner on down, but nobody but my client had the courage to stand up and blow the whistle.”
Rocah’s push to toss out this number of allegedly tainted convictions is rare for Westchester County and New York as a whole, legal experts say.
In recent years, prosecutors across the state have consented to wide-scale convictions purges following the arrests or criminal convictions of police officers. But this initiative is novel in that it is based on both police and prosecutorial misconduct, notes Karen Newirth, founder of Newirth Law, PLLC and former director of the mass exoneration initiative at The Exoneration Project.
“This level of transparency is unprecedented in the world of mass exonerations, and should encourage other district attorneys to expand their review of faulty convictions, and reveal how the prosecutorial gatekeeping function failed,” said Newirth in an interview, who investigated numerous wrongful conviction claims in Mount Vernon after the release of the whistleblower’s tapes. “It is only through this process that we can be assured of the prosecution’s commitment to avoid future wrongful convictions.”
In coming weeks, the final decision on vacating the charges will be made by judges. In Westchester County Court, Judge George E. Fufidio will consider the 11 convictions involving felony charges; the 15 convictions for misdemeanors will be decided in Mount Vernon City Court.
At least one man swept up in the 2017 operation tried to sound alarm bells years before this announcement.
Henderson Clarke provided his defense attorney with bus tickets and social media records indicating that he was in North Carolina at the time that Mount Vernon police accused him of selling drugs to an undercover officer.
Gothamist’s subsequent investigation corroborated these claims, obtaining geolocation data from Clarke’s cellphone that showed a browser search made from his phone in North Carolina on the morning of the supposed drug sale.
But rather than launching a probe looking into such discrepancies, Westchester County prosecutors under then-District Attorney Anthony Scarpino quietly dismissed Clarke’s case.
Gothamist subsequently informed Clarke about whistleblower Murashea Bovell’s police tapes, which Scarpino’s office had received months before the case dismissal. The tapes contained fabricated drug arrest allegations against the detective who signed off on the criminal complaint against Clarke.
“What that [assistant district attorney] just proved is no matter what, you’re guilty until proven innocent, and they will cover it and you basically gotta fight for your freedom,” Clarke said at the time.
In her press release, Rocah also noted that her office would not be pursuing criminal charges against any of the Mount Vernon police officers mentioned in the tapes, citing a lack of cooperation from narcotics officers and civilians. But more reverberations from the scandal may be coming for the small police department.
In the wake of the Gothamist series, which published explosive footage of police body cavity searches, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division launched an investigation into the practices of the troubled municipal police department.
That probe is ongoing.