Legal Aid and Davis Polk Help Free Robert Hill After 28 Years In Prison For A Crime He Did Not Commit; First Scarcella Victim To Be Freed
TUESDAY, MAY 06, 2014

Today, after a year-long investigation by The Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, Robert Hill had his conviction for second-degree murder vacated and he was freed after 28 years of incarceration.

The Brooklyn District Attorney agreed with the defense that the conviction, for which Mr. Hill had originally been sentenced to life imprisonment, lacked integrity, because it depended on the testimony of an unreliable witness, Theresa Gomez.

Ms. Gomez, now deceased, claimed to have witnessed at least six homicides in Brooklyn in the course of a short period of time. She worked with now-discredited retired detective Louis Scarcella. After questions about Detective Scarcella and Ms. Gomez were raised by The New York Times in May 2013, the District Attorney's Integrity Review Unit agreed to review the work of the retired detective. As a result of its reinvestigation, the District Attorney also dismissed all charges against two of Mr. Hill's brothers, one of whom died in prison, who were also convicted based on Ms. Gomez's testimony, in an unrelated homicide.

While lawyers for the defendants knew that the Conviction Review Unit was examining their cases, they were surprised by how quickly the decision to exonerate their clients had come, said Harold Ferguson, a Legal Aid lawyer who was on Mr. Hill's legal team. The lawyers received a phone call on Sunday from an assistant district attorney in the review unit, and they called Mr. Hill on Monday to give him the news.




The New York Times
Brooklyn Judge Vacates Murder Convictions of 3 Half-Brothers
By Stephanie Clifford
May 6, 2014

The decades-old murder convictions of three half-brothers were vacated in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, as prosecutors acknowledged that the men were deprived of a fair trial because of a questionable witness.

The witness was repeatedly used by a homicide detective, Louis J. Scarcella, whose work is now being investigated.

The convictions and all indictment charges were dismissed against Alvena Jennette, Robert Hill and Darryl Austin; of the three, only Mr. Hill was still in prison. Mr. Jennette was released on parole in 2007, and Mr. Austin died in prison.

The witness who testified against them, Teresa Gomez, was “a troubled young person, hopelessly addicted to drugs, criminal in her conduct for the most part, increasingly erratic in terms of her accounts,” an assistant district attorney, Mark Hale, said in court.

After The New York Times raised questions about the methods of Mr. Scarcella, including the repeated use of Ms. Gomez as a witness, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office last year began reviewing 57 cases that he had worked on.

Mr. Scarcella, who is retired, has denied any wrongdoing.

Mr. Hill, Mr. Jennette and Mr. Austin were the first Scarcella-related defendants to be exonerated through the efforts of the Brooklyn district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit. The office of the district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, who took office this year, has exonerated three other prisoners in his four months in office.

Mr. Hill’s case was the first to be heard. Dressed in a white shirt and khaki paints, his long hair tied back, he walked with a cane — he has multiple sclerosis — and looked around the courtroom with a big grin before the hearing as he made eye contact with friends and relatives.

“The conviction of Mr. Hill was based primarily, almost entirely, on the testimony of a witness who we now feel to be extremely problematic,” said Mr. Hale, who works in the Conviction Review Unit.

With his freedom won, Mr. Hill walked from the front of the courtroom to the spectator section, joining his friends and relatives to watch as the convictions against his half-brothers were vacated.

Justice Neil J. Firetog then called the cases of Mr. Austin and Mr. Jennette. Mr. Austin’s mother — the mother of all three exonerated men — stood in for him at court on Tuesday.

In the trial against Mr. Jennette and Mr. Austin, Ms. Gomez and another witness “gave wildly different accounts of the shooting,” Pierre Sussman, the brothers’ lawyer, said.

“Her testimony was so bizarre,” Mr. Sussman continued, “that a request was made by counsel at the time of trial to order urinalysis.”

When the judge said the convictions against Mr. Jennette and Mr. Austin were vacated, two rows of relatives and friends stood up and clapped.

Mr. Jennette said afterward that he felt “great that it’s over with.” Mr. Hill, who appeared a little stunned, said, “I feel all right.”

While lawyers for the defendants knew that the Conviction Review Unit was examining their cases, they were surprised by how quickly the decision to exonerate their clients had come, said Harold Ferguson, a Legal Aid lawyer who was on Mr. Hill’s legal team. The lawyers received a phone call on Sunday from an assistant district attorney in the review unit, and they called Mr. Hill on Monday to give him the news.

The unit, which has about 90 cases in total to look at, is beginning with the cases in which the defendants are still in prison, prosecutors said.

Ms. Gomez was used in six of Mr. Scarcella’s cases. She was the central witness against Mr. Austin and Mr. Jennette, who were convicted of a 1985 murder, killing a man for money.

She was also the witness in two separate murder cases against Mr. Hill; the first case ended in his acquittal. In the second case, he was accused of shooting a man in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, then putting the man into a livery cab and directing it to a hospital. He was convicted and sentenced to 18 years to life.

Two of the other cases in which Ms. Gomez was a witness ended in pleas; the district attorney’s office is revisiting those cases. In the sixth case, she did not show up for cross-examination, and the case was dismissed.

Staff members of the district attorney’s office spent hundreds of hours reviewing the cases, and reinterviewed people who knew Ms. Gomez, were part of the original police investigation or might have been around at the time of the crimes.

Ms. Gomez’s testimony was odd and imprecise; in the case Mr. Hill was convicted in, she described being five feet away as she saw Mr. Hill shoot the victim, then put the victim in a yellow cab. Yet the driver said that he had a livery cab, that it was blue and that he had been hailed by two calm, unarmed people. Two others then carried the victim out of a building down the block, according to a parole application prepared by Mr. Hill’s lawyers.

Prosecutors found no evidence that Ms. Gomez was given cash in exchange for her testimony, and said it was unclear why she did what she did.

Mr. Hill said he planned to serve as a counselor for youth in Crown Heights and to get vocational training after leaving prison, the recent parole application said.