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New York State to Pay Millions in Wrongful Conviction Case

A Brooklyn man who spent more than a dozen years in prison for a crime he likely did not commit will receive $3 million from New York State. He may get even more from New York City.

Jabbar Collins (Andrew Burton, Special to ProPublica)

Nineteen years ago, a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge sentenced Jabbar Collins to a prison term of 34-years-to-life for the murder of Abraham Pollack, a Brooklyn rabbi shot dead in the hallway of his apartment building. That day, Collins told the court he was innocent; the judge disagreed and said he wished he could send Collins off to a hard labor camp.

Just after noon on Thursday, Collins appeared before a different judge and received much different news: the state of New York had agreed to pay him $3 three million dollars for the 15 years he lost behind bars, serving time for a crime there is very good reason to believe he didn't commit.

The award came as part of a lawsuit Collins filed against both the state and city of New York three years ago after his murder conviction was overturned in federal court in 2010. In a statement, Collins' attorney, Joel Rudin, said that while the award was one of the highest ever agreed to by the state, he and Collins hope it will lead to an even bigger payment from the city.

"Three million dollars is a lot of money, but it is a small fraction of what Jabbar Collins is entitled to for 15 horrendous years in a maximum security state prison," Rudin said. "We look forward now to concentrating totally on his much larger claim for damages against New York City."

The case against the city is scheduled to go to trial on October 20 before Federal Judge Frederic Block. A spokesperson for New York City's office of corporation counsel said they couldn't comment on any pending litigation.

Thursday's proceeding in the New York State Court of Claims in Manhattan lasted a mere seven minutes. The judge, Faviolo Soto, said she hoped the award would provide some relief to Collins.

"This is meant to satisfy the loss of liberty that Mr. Collins experienced," Judge Soto said. "This has been a very reasonable settlement. I wish you the very best of luck, Mr. Collins."

Collins sued the state under the Unjust Conviction Act, which allows wrongfully convicted New Yorkers to recover damages if they can prove their innocence with "clear and convincing evidence," an extremely high bar. Clearly, the state felt Collins had a strong chance of demonstrating his innocence.

"We did engage in negotiations with the claimant," Janet Polstein, an assistant attorney general for New York State, said in court on Thursday. "Under the precedent in this court, we feel this is a reasonable compensation."

Collins' lawsuit accuses then-Brooklyn District Attorney Charles "Joe" Hynes and one of his top aides, Michael Vecchione, of a startling array of misconduct. The suit alleges that Vecchione, who prosecuted Collins, coerced witnesses, withheld evidence, and suborned perjury to win the conviction in 1995. Collins had gathered much of the evidence while in prison through Freedom of Information Act requests.

In 2010, after Collins had lost on numerous appeals before state judges, Federal Judge Dora Irizarry vacated Collins' conviction, saying Vecchione's misconduct was "beyond disappointing" and criticized Hynes for protecting him. Vecchione remained on Hynes's staff for years after the conviction was thrown out.

"It is really sad that the D.A.'s office persists in standing firm and saying they did nothing wrong here," Irizarry said.

In June last year, Vecchione was forced to answer questions about his conduct in the case under oath. He answered "I don't recall" and close variants 324 times. He retired from the Brooklyn District Attorney's office in November after Hynes lost the election for what would've been his seventh term.

Hynes himself has already testified twice under oath in the case, and in court papers filed last month, Rudin sought to question him a third time, following revelations in a scathing Department of Investigation report that Hynes received advice from a top Brooklyn Judge on how to handle political fallout from the Collins case.

The city recently agreed to pay five men wrongly convicted in the Central Park jogger case $1 million each for every year they spent in prison.

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