After 30 months of work that included managing a private cold-case investigation of events in East New York in the early '90s and the retention of a leading false-confession expert, Hughes Hubbard & Reed helped clear the name of a woman who spent 10 years in prison after being framed by a rogue detective.
On Feb. 23, Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Matthew J. D'Emic vacated the 1998 manslaughter conviction of Vanessa Gathers. The decision followed two-and-a-half years of exhaustive legal and investigative efforts by lawyers from Hughes Hubbard and The Legal Aid Society, which led them to conclude that Gathers had no involvement in a 1991 assault on 71-year-old Michael Shaw in his Crown Heights apartment, but rather had been framed by disgraced NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella. Over several written and oral presentations in 2015, the attorneys made the case for Gathers' innocence to Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson's office.
The case marks the second exoneration from a wrongful conviction that Hughes Hubbard achieved in the past seven months. (Pro bono client Ruddy Quezada was released in August 2015 after serving more than 23 years in prison for murder following David Shanies', Marc Weinstein's and Sarah Cave's convincing presentation that prosecutors withheld from the defense crucial evidence about a witness who was arrested and held captive in a hotel to compel him to testify for the government at trial.)
A woman with no prior criminal convictions and no experience in dealing with the NYPD, Gathers' nightmare began in 1992 when she first crossed paths with Scarcella. Gathers, who lived around the corner from Shaw, was interviewed as a witness by Scarcella based on a supposed "tip" for which there was no proof. Scarcella then abandoned the investigation for five years.
In 1997, Scarcella was forced out of Brooklyn Homicide North by a supervisor and sent packing, in humiliating fashion, to the 77th Precinct to solve "cold" cases. The Shaw case was the first one he picked off the shelf. Scarcella found Gathers conveniently still living in the same building and interrogated her using now widely controversial accusatory interrogation techniques. He extracted a confession from her, thereby miraculously "solving" a cold case in roughly a day. Scarcella arrested her and was the chief witness against her at trial, where no evidence implicated Gathers in the crime save her purported confession.
Gathers recanted the coerced confession almost immediately and has done so consistently and steadfastly ever since, including in connection with parole applications where it would have been to her advantage to admit guilt. Since her release in 2007, Gathers, now 58, has been a law-abiding and productive member of society, a valued employee, and a loving mother and daughter.
In short, the case Hughes Hubbard and The Legal Aid Society presented to the district attorney's office was a chilling one. "Following his demotion, Detective Scarcella picked up a five-year-old cold case, and then went for the quickest arrest he could," said Lisa Cahill, who led the Hughes Hubbard team. "In the absence of any evidence, he coerced a false confession from an innocent woman, sending her to prison for 10 years. Detective Scarcella had no pretensions to being Sherlock Holmes. The search for truth seemed to have no role in his investigation."
On Feb. 16, 2016, two months following an oral pitch made to the district attorney's chief assistant by Cahill, Weinstein and Seth Steed from The Legal Aid Society, Thompson himself informed Gathers' attorneys that he planned to move to vacate her conviction, which led to the Feb. 23 court proceeding.
Hughes Hubbard teamed up with The Legal Aid Society on this case in the summer of 2013 after then-District Attorney Charles Hynes agreed to vacate the murder conviction of David Ranta based in large part on "some questionable conduct" by Scarcella. That decision prompted a slew of complaints from the defense bar and convicted defendants about other questionable Scarcella convictions, and Hynes announced his intent to review at least 50 other murder convictions Scarcella had worked on.
The exoneration made headlines in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Daily News and many other news outlets.
In addition to Cahill, Mayer and Weinstein, the Hughes Hubbard team included Alexandra Shookhoff, who was the lead associate on the case and who made a major contribution to the successful result by winning a key decision in a FOIL litigation brought against the NYPD. That decision resulted in Gathers' lawyers getting access to the NYPD's case file, which contained a wealth of valuable, and previously withheld, material.
Alejo Cabranes, Ryan Kim, Brittany Cohen and paralegal Nikki Garton also worked on this case, with assistance from Hughes Hubbard alums David Shanies and John Turrettini and former summer associates Megan Buckley, Nate Ducena and Jordan Pate