In a gray suit, her short hair neatly curled, Vanessa Gathers sat in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn last Tuesday, beaming as the judge spoke words she had waited nearly two decades to hear: The manslaughter conviction for which she had spent 10 years in prison was vacated, the judge said, after an investigation revealed that her confession to the crime was false.
In an instant, Ms. Gathers was no longer a convicted criminal. The judge, Justice Matthew J. D’Emic, smiled back. “Good luck!” he said.
Ms. Gathers, 58, is the first woman to have been exonerated by the Conviction Review Unit, a special unit created by the Brooklyn district attorney to look into scores of cases linked to Louis Scarcella, a retired detective whose tactics led to the wrongful convictions of more than a dozen people, according to the district attorney’s office. The unit is examining 100 cases, many of them involving Mr. Scarcella.
Mark Hale, an assistant district attorney, told the judge that an investigation into Ms. Gathers’s case had determined that she had been wrongfully convicted and that her confession had been coaxed, fed to her by Mr. Scarcella.
“We have grave doubts and, in fact, do not believe that it was true,” Mr. Hale said.
After the hearing, the Brooklyn district attorney, Ken Thompson, spoke outside the courtroom. “These wrongful convictions represent a systemic failure, a failure by prosecutors, defense attorneys, by judges, by the system,” he said. “These wrongful convictions destroy lives, and no matter what happens, Ms. Gathers will not get back those 10 years.”
Ms. Gathers was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Michael Shaw, 71, who was attacked and robbed inside his apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991. He died of complications from the assault six months later, in 1992. Ms. Gathers was convicted in 1998, and has been free since she was paroled on March 2, 2007, after serving 10 years in prison.
Ms. Gathers was approached by Mr. Scarcella on the street a month after Mr. Shaw’s death “because she fit the description of one of the assailants,” according to a statement released by the district attorney’s office. She denied being connected to the attack, and pointed to a woman who she believed had done it, but years later, as the investigation continued, she was again interrogated by Mr. Scarcella. In 1997, she confessed — the only evidence presented at trial.
But an examination by Mr. Thompson’s office determined that Ms. Gathers had “made a false confession based, in part, on the defendant’s inability to articulate her role in the assault; perceived inaccuracies in the statement itself; and the lack of details in the statement,” the district attorney’s statement said. Investigators determined that the “complete lack of a coherent narrative in the defendant’s confession, combined with apparent factual errors, amount to reasonable doubt in the validity of the confession itself.”
Among those inconsistencies, Mr. Hale said in court on Tuesday, were statements that the victim had been in a wheelchair. In fact, he had never used one.
While imprisoned, Ms. Gathers had an impeccable record and consistently maintained her innocence, even at three parole hearings, where it may have been more expedient to admit to the crime in hopes of being released, said Lisa Cahill, a lawyer with Hughes Hubbard & Reed, which represented Ms. Gathers, along with the Legal Aid Society. “And it wasn’t because of calculations or because of some Machiavellian foresight,” Ms. Cahill said. “It is because she is fundamentally a decent woman.”