NSB secures unanimous ruling from New York’s highest court

Gary Craig, “Douglas Warney’s bid for restitution is restored,” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, March 31, 2011.

Rochester police likely coerced a false confession from Douglas Warney, a city man who spent more than nine years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, New York’s highest court ruled today.

The New York Court of Appeals ruled that a Court of Claims judge wrongly dismissed Warney’s bid for restitution from the state for his wrongful imprisonment.

The ruling means that Warney can renew his bid for restitution. That determination could help others who are seeking payment for convictions based on false confessions.

He was convicted in 1997 for the Rochester murder of William Beason, a slaying authorities now know was committed by another man.

In New York, the wrongly convicted can seek restitution through the Court of Claims and a state statute designed to award those who suffered an “unjust conviction and imprisonment.” The law does block restitution from those whose conduct caused the conviction.

In 2008, Court of Claims Judge Renee Forgensi Minarik dismissed Warney’s claim against the state. She determined that he had not proven his statement was coerced and that his actions were in part responsible for a jury’s guilty verdict against him.

The Court of Appeals determined that the evidence in Warney’s legal papers clearly point to a coercive interrogation, since he provided details of the crime that only the killer could know.

“The allegations describe how no member of the public other than the perpetrator could have known all the details contained in the confession — whether negligently or through intentional manipulation, police misconduct led to the inclusion of these details in Warney’s statement,” the court wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Court of Appeals Judge Robert Smith wrote that Warney’s case is so “compelling” that it should not be a signal to Court of Claims judges to uphold “much weaker ones.” Restitution cases with “allegations implausible or unconvincing on their face” should be dismissed, Smith wrote.

However, Warney’s allegations clearly point to coercion, Smith wrote.

“ … A confession cannot fairly be called ‘uncoerced’ that results from the sort of calculated manipulation that appears to be present here — even if the police did not actually beat or torture the confessor, or threaten to do so,” he wrote.

In an unusual step, the court even ordered that the state pay Warney’s legal costs.

Relying largely on the confession, a jury convicted Warney in 1997 for the murder of Beason, who was stabbed to death in his apartment. Warney’s lawyers insisted that the statement was full of errors; prosecutors maintained that Warney made statements that only the killer could know.

Warney suffered from AIDS-related dementia, his lawyers said then.

The Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to try to free the wrongly convicted, in recent years pushed for new testing of evidence from the murder scene.

Meanwhile, the District Attorney’s Office had the blood from the crime scene tested, and determined that Eldred Johnson Jr., a man imprisoned for murder, may have killed Beason.

Questioned in prison, Johnson admitted to the murder and has since pleaded guilty to Beason’s killing.

In 2006, a judge freed Warney at the request of prosecutors.

“My expectation is that the state of New York will want to settle Mr. Warney’s case now,” said Peter Neufeld, a partner with the New York City law firm of Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, LLP, which argued Warney’s case.

Warney said today that he had grown doubtful his case would proceed. A regional appellate court also sided with Minarik’s ruling, judging that his case should be  dismissed. “I am so happy,” Warney said. ” … What they did to me, it could happen to you, it could happen to me. It could happen to anybody at any given moment.”

“This wall that they’ve been hiding behind for all these years to avoid paying Doug …  that has now been eliminated by the Court of Appeals,” said Neufeld, who is also an Innocence Project founder.

Neufeld said the ruling may ripple across the country, since other states have modeled their wrongful conviction restitution statutes after New York’s.

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