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Podcast: Why Settlements Don’t Fix Wrongful Convictions

It may seem to some a happy ending:  A Brooklyn man wrongly convicted in a 1994 murder is at last cleared -- after serving 16 years in prison -- and then reaches a $10 million settlement with the city in the case.

Perhaps, says Senior Editor Joe Sexton, but it’s far from justice. “He will get his millions, but he won’t get his life back, and neither will his children or his family,” Sexton says, joining Managing Editor Robin Fields in the Storage Closet Studio to talk about the settlement.

While Collins’s family now has some measure of financial security, and the city has admitted wrongdoing, Sexton says, “there isn’t any real remedy that is committed to. The remedies that many people think are required really can only be brought about by legislation that would, you know, create a better, more effective way for making sure that prosecutors, in doing their vital jobs for society, don’t abuse their authority.”

Collins’s case, which was resolved more quickly than many wrongful convictions, illuminates so many of the problems that plague the system, Sexton says: He fought for years just to get the information to make his case, and many of the judges he appealed to seemed disinclined to even hear him out.

Indeed, Fields says, there have been many cases in the news recently dating back to the tenure of longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’s tenure -- and in particular, one of his top prosecutors, Michael Vecchione. Vecchione, who handled Collins’s case, has been accused of a variety of misconduct in the case, including suborning perjury and lying about it for years. Those accusations, which ProPublica has investigated as part of its Out of Order series, have resulted in no sanctions.

“At this point, Hynes has been voted out, which was an unusual outcome in and of itself, and Mr. Vecchione has retired,” Fields, says, “Is that enough to essentially clean up the problems in Brooklyn, or in the system at large?” And if not, is there a way to quantify the amount of misconduct perpetrated by prosecutors?

Sadly, Sexton says, ProPublica’s reporting has revealed the answer to both questions to be “a  resounding ‘no.’ ”

“Part of it is that so much of what prosecutors do in today’s justice system goes on outside of the courtroom,” he says, including plea bargains and prosecutors’ investigations themselves.

As long as that’s the case, Sexton says, there will be work to do.

Hear the full podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. See our Out of Order series for more of ProPublica’s reporting on prosecutorial misconduct.

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