By Joel B. Rudin
Editor’s note: The author, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney in New York, represented Jabbar Collins, who was freed June 8 after serving 16 years in prison for murder. He writes about the case below.
That Jabbar Collins, 37, was freed last week was nothing short of miraculous. Collins was convicted in 1995 of a murder during a robbery attempt. Two witnesses identified him as the man they had seen fleeing the scene, while a third witness claimed to have been present when Collins allegedly planned the crime. The conviction was affirmed on appeal; Collins no longer had any right to a lawyer’s assistance; years passed. It appeared he would never be released.
But during this time, Collins, a high school dropout, dedicated himself in prison to learning how to be a lawyer. He became an expert in the intricacies of the New York State Freedom of Information Law, and initiated numerous FOIL requests and litigation to enforce them. Through such requests, he obtained evidence showing that one witness’s account was apparently a fabrication, that two witnesses had received secret benefits in exchange for their testimony, and that at least two witnesses’ testimony had been coerced. He ingeniously discovered evidence that hadn’t been given to defense before trial by posing as a D.A.’s investigator reconstructing the office’s file after 9/11. And he convinced a third witness to give permission to disclose to Collins his attorney’s file and State Corrections records, which revealed that the witness had been coerced and manipulated by the prosecutor. The witness then revealed that prosecutors had concealed his pre-trial recantation.
Meanwhile, Collins found time to help countless other inmates appeal and collaterally attack their own convictions, and several were freed. He became a superb legal analyst and writer. I agreed to represent Collins in 2005 after he showed me the remarkable evidence he had collected, and we brought a state collateral attack in 2006. But the prosecutor, Michael Vecchione, the chief of the Office’s Rackets Division, swore that no witness had to be pressured to testify, no one had recanted, and no Brady material had been withheld. The motion was denied without a hearing, and permission to appeal was denied.
Collins next appealed his conviction in federal court. We feared the appeal would die without a hearing, like most federal habeas corpus petitions do, but Judge Dora Irizarry appeared incensed at the D.A. when Collins, through yet another FOIL request, unearthed still more Brady material. She ordered a hearing, at which one witness devastatingly testified that Vecchione had threatened to hit him over the head with a table and to keep him in prison for years if he did not testify against Collins.
Remarkably, to avoid further hearings, the DA’s office agreed to an order vacating Collins’s conviction and prohibiting any retrial. Collins went free. While D.A. Charles Hynes immediately proclaimed that Vecchione had done nothing wrong and there would be no internal investigation, there will be a lawsuit. Vecchione’s misconduct, and the Office’s knowing toleration of it, will be fully exposed. Such lawsuits are essential considering the attitude of the D.A. defending his underlings no matter what they do.
Read more about Collins’ case in
the New York Times