How a Broken System Kept an Innocent Man Behind Bars for 25 Years
An intellectually-disabled man who was already on crutches from a previous shooting somehow got fingered for a woman's murder. Then he was failed by his own lawyers and shady prosecutors.
Andre Hatchett, along with family and his attorneys, after getting final word of his exoneration. All photos by Sameer Abdel-Khalek
As he languished in prison for 25 years, Andre Hatchett insisted that he did not murder Neda Mae Carter. On Thursday afternoon, Brooklyn prosecutors finally agreed with what he and his defense team have been saying all along: There's no evidence tying him to the crime. As the New York Times reports, an audience applauded when Hatchett's conviction was vacated by a judge, and the 49-year-old walked out of the courtroom with his sisters en route to a steak dinner at Dallas BBQ.
When Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson took office in 2014, he put an emphasis on reviewing suspicious cases, and Hatchett is the 19th person person to be exonerated on his watch. The plan is to review about 100 cases, about 70 of which are tied to infamous former NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella. That cop had no connection to this case, but Hatchett's story is especially glaring in that it shows how the criminal justice system can fail on every single level.
On February, 18, 1991, Hatchett gave money to Carter so that she could buy crack. Later that evening, at around 11 PM, police responded to a call that there was a woman unconscious in a Bed-Stuy park. When they arrived at the scene, they found Carter's naked, brutalized corpse, her limbs apparently having been arranged so as to resemble the aftermath of a crucifixion.
Hatchett, who at the time of the murder was a new father and an ice delivery man, had an IQ of 63 and read at a first-grade level. He was also using crutches after getting caught up in an unrelated shooting. The only person to testify against him at trial was Gerard Williams, a criminal who originally identified another person.
When that first alleged perp ended up having an alibi, Williams picked Hatchett out of a lineup.
The first attorney assigned to Hatchett's defense was so incompetent that the case resulted in a mistrial. The second lawyer failed to disclose to the jury that his client had such a low IQ and was physically incapacitated at the time of the murder. That second attorney was also never told by the prosecutor Nicholas Fengos or his team that the sole eyewitness originally tried to finger another suspect.
While Hatchett was in prison, he lost his son. The judge and trial defense lawyer also died. Meanwhile, Fengos—who subsequently took a gig at the International Rescue Committee—is no longer a prosecutor.
Last year, a bill passed the New York State Senate that would have required police to record interrogations, but the measure never made it into law. The idea was to prevent coerced confessions, which frequently play into wrongful convictions. A similar proposal has gained support this year from Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Bar Association, and the District Attorneys Association. According to the Innocence Project, which helped secure Hatchett's release, about half the states in the country have similar procedures already in place.
"It's frightening how easy it is to convict an innocent person in this country," Seema Saifee, a staff attorney for the organization, told the Times."And it's overwhelmingly difficult to release an innocent person."
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