Prosecutors Review Dozens of Cases After NYPD Informed Them — Eight Years Later — of a Detective’s Fingerprint Mistake
The incident led to the transfer of the detective, the retraining of two others, and changes in police procedure.
Prosecutors across New York City are reviewing dozens of criminal convictions after the NYPD informed them in July of an eight-year-old incident in which three detectives were involved in a fingerprint misidentification at a Brooklyn crime scene.
The incident, which police said did not lead to any arrests or prosecutions, triggered the removal of Detective Joe Martinez from the Latent Print Section, which analyzes finger and palm print matches, the retraining of two detectives who validated his findings, and changes in department fingerprint comparison practices.
In 2015, investigators determined that Martinez “erroneously reported” that a person described as “known to the NYPD” had been “identified as the source of a latent print left at a crime scene,” according to a letter sent by Lt. Rosalyn Joseph, who heads the Latent Print Section, to the city’s five DAs and the two local U.S. Attorney’s offices. The letter did not describe the nature of the crime under investigation.
In response to questions from THE CITY, the NYPD did not immediately explain why it took so long to reveal information to prosecutors, who have a constitutional obligation to disclose information favorable to defendants. According to the July letter, the department conducted its own review of past cases and found “no discrepancies.” But public defenders and innocence attorneys expressed alarm at the belated revelations.
Martinez never again worked as a latent print examiner and never testified again, according to a law enforcement source familiar with the matter.
The errant identification had been “verified” by two of Martinez’s colleagues, detectives Edward Sanabria and Gerald Rex, but a month after the supposed match the department realized the individual “could not have been the source of the crime scene latent fingerprint,” according to the letter.
In response to inquiries from THE CITY, state and federal prosecutors confirmed that they had launched, and had in some cases completed, internal reviews. But the scale of those reviews differed.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s prosecutors are in the middle of a review of about 30 convictions. Those cases include ones in which the three retired detectives made identifications or were otherwise involved, according to a spokesperson.
A spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said his office’s Forensic Science Unit, Conviction Review Unit and Appeals Bureau are probing eleven convictions that took place after the NYPD’s review of the incident in 2015. Those convictions, which came after Martinez was transferred out of the unit, involved Sanabria and Rex.
Patrice O’Shaughnessy, a spokesperson for Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, said her office was first notified of the misidentification this July. “We notified the defense attorneys on 20 cases and we continue to review these cases as part of our commitment to pursuing justice with integrity, disclosure obligations, and transparency,” she said.
Frank Sobrino, a spokesperson for Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, said his agency conducted a more narrow reinvestigation, reviewing just three convictions in which Martinez, Sanabria, or Rex had themselves identified a defendant. The analysis “confirmed the original latent print results,” he said.
Staten Island District Attorney spokesperson James Clinton, said the office had an independent examiner review and verify the identifications that Sanabria or Rex did that contributed to five convictions in the borough. “Nevertheless, and in the interest of full disclosure, our office has begun sending letters to defense counsel on each of these cases notifying them of this disclosure by NYPD,” said Clinton.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York said it had already conducted a review, which did not raise any red flags. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment. The Bronx District Attorney’s Office and the Family Court Division of the New York City Corporation Counsel’s Office, which also received the letter, did not respond to requests for comment.
Lawyers who represent defendants were more outspoken.
“The NYPD’s disclosure letter reveals next to nothing about how this misidentification may have negatively impacted any number of our clients’ cases,” said Jenny Cheung, supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society’s DNA Unit, which handles forensic matters for the public defender group. “It is unacceptable that even one client would have their right to a fair trial jeopardized as a result of the NYPD’s failure to disclose, for nearly a decade, all pertinent case-related information to defendants and their counsel. We need answers now.”
Karen Newirth, founder of Newirth Law, PLLC and a former attorney with The Exoneration Project, called for an independent review of all cases the detectives touched, including those cases already reviewed by the NYPD.
“It is not enough that the NYPD in its own review — the parameters of which are unknown — concluded that there were ‘no discrepancies’ in other cases,” she said, adding that prosecutors should examine the work of the unit “writ large.”
Public records show Martinez left the NYPD around July 2016 and Sanabria left the force in September 2017. Rex, whose LinkedIn profile says he served as lead instructor for the latent print division, on top of handling case work, left the force in December 2019.
Messages sent to all three former detectives, and phone messages that were left on numbers listed for Rex, weren’t immediately responded to.
The Detectives Endowment Association, the union representing current and retired detectives, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The NYPD letter to prosecutors noted that the department secured accreditation from a national board in 2019, four years after the false identification.
The former commander of the forensics unit told AMNY that year that securing the accreditation had required passing more than 400 standards.