A wrongly convicted jailhouse lawyer helps free others who were wrongfully convicted
Prosecutorial misconduct, since it is so rarely punished and makes a prosecutor’s job easier, tends to become more common over time. The result of such conduct is sometimes that innocent people go to prison. Jennifer Gonnerman has a column in the New Yorker about a recent case:
Derrick Hamilton never went to law school, but prisoners across New York State have heard about his formidable legal skills, which he acquired while he was wrongly imprisoned for murder for more than two decades, reading law books and fighting to get himself and other inmates set free. I recently wrote about Hamilton, who was released in 2011, for the magazine; he works as a paralegal in New York City and continues to help prisoners he believes to be innocent. Last year, I travelled with him to Green Haven prison, in Dutchess County, to visit a client serving twenty-five to life. This prisoner, who had once been confined on the same cellblock as Hamilton, told me about the excitement that would spread among inmates when they found out that Hamilton had been transferred to their prison. “Everybody knows him,” the inmate said. “First thing that crosses everybody’s mind is ‘Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!’ ”
That day, in Green Haven’s visiting room, when Hamilton walked over to the vending machines to buy snacks, an inmate flagged him down and begged him for help with his case. The same thing happened last year when Hamilton went to visit a client at Shawangunk prison, in upstate New York. In the visiting room, a man Hamilton had never met before—Wayne Martin, then in his fifth year of a life sentence for a double homicide—approached him and said, “Derrick, listen, I’ve got a good case.”
At the time, Hamilton was mentoring a young lawyer named Justin Bonus, who had graduated from the Roger Williams University School of Law, in 2011. Bonus had heard about Hamilton’s reputation as a jailhouse lawyer and tracked down Hamilton after his release from prison. “I’m almost in law school again—that’s how I feel,” Bonus, who is thirty-six, told me. “He’s as good as a professor. Better, probably, because he’s more practical.” Hamilton directed Bonus to take a close look at Martin’s case.
Martin had been found guilty of shooting three people—Gary Turner, his son Donald, and Ricardo Davids—during an attempted robbery of Gary’s Tire Emporium, in Brooklyn, in 2005. The elder Turner and Davids were killed. The shooter escaped, but the police found inside the store a ski mask that a witness said the shooter had worn; later, a detective said he found a black knit hat outside on the sidewalk. The police entered the DNA on them into a database, and seven months later there was a match: the hat appeared to have Martin’s DNA on it. (Martin’s DNA was in the database; he had an earlier robbery conviction.)
At Martin’s trial, in 2010, two people testified that they had seen him commit the crime: Turner’s son Donald, who was seriously injured in the shooting and later suffered a stroke and amnesia, and a man named Michael Walker, a friend of Turner’s, who had been at the scene. After the trial, Martin appealed his conviction, and was turned down. By the time Martin had spied Hamilton in his prison’s visiting room, he was no longer eligible for a free attorney; he was attempting to fight his conviction in federal court on his own.
With Hamilton advising him, Bonus scrutinized Martin’s case file and visited him at Shawangunk, and he discovered a number of details that he thought raised serious doubts about Martin’s conviction. . .