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2003-12-18

Wrongfully Convicted Pt. 1: NYC Agrees to Pay $5M For Jailing Innocent Man For 7 Years

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We speak with a man who won five million dollars in the largest wrongful conviction settlement in New York state history after spending over seven years in jail for a crime he did not commit. Albert Ramos joins us in our studio along with his lawyer who uncovered dozens of cases of prosecutorial misconduct in the course of his investigation. [includes transcript]

Today we look at the case of Albert Ramos. He served more than seven years in jail after being wrongfully convicted in 1984 of raping a 5-year-old girl at a day care center. He was released in 1992 after the court found that the trial prosecutor had withheld evidence that most likely would have exonerated him. 11 years later he won a $5 million in the largest wrongful conviction settlement in New York state history.

In the course of his investigation for the lawsuit Ramos’ lawyer, Joel Rudin, uncovered dozens of cases of prosecutorial misconduct in the Bronx district attorney’s office that did not result in disciplinary action.

Judge John Collins in 1992 said of Albert Ramos’ case: "The greatest crime of all in a civilized society is an unjust conviction. It is truly a scandal which reflects unfavorably on all participants in the criminal justice system."

  • Alberto Ramos, served seven years after being wrongfully convicted in 1984 of raping a 5-year-old girl at a day care center. He was released in 1992 after the court found that the trial prosecutor had withheld evidence that most likely would have exonerated him. 11 years later he won a $5 million in the largest wrongful conviction settlement in New York state history.
  • Joel Rudin, Albert Ramos’ lawyer. He uncovered dozens of cases of prosecutorial misconduct in the Bronx district attorney’s office that did not result in disciplinary action.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin with Alberto Ramos, who will receive $5 million for a wrongful conviction. The largest such settlement in state history, who said yesterday "no amount of money is worth going to prison with the tag of baby rapist". What he was talking about was for seven years, he was in prison from 1985 to 1992 when he was 22 year old college student and aspiring teacher working in the concourse day care center in the Bronx, Ramos was convicted of raping a five-year-old girl. The case started in 1984, when a mother bathing her girl saw redness around her daughter’s vaginal area. The girl initially claimed a five-year-old classmate abused her. Her mother reported her daughter’s allegations. New York City’s Human Resources Agency which oversees day care programs in the Bronx District Attorneys office, investigated. The first doctor to examine the girl ruled out sexual abuse. An agency investigation found the girl told the other students about sexually explicit movies she watched at home, acted out intercourse with dolls and had a history of masturbating in class. An agency investigation found that the girl told the Bronx assistant district attorney who prosecuted Ramos never called that doctor and ignored the agency’s findings. The prosecutor also didn’t turn over the agency materials to defense attorneys. Ultimately, the conviction of Alberto Ramos was overturned, and we’re joined by Alberto Ramos in the studio. Along with his attorney, Joel Ruden. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!.

ALBERTO RAMOS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your winning this $5 million suit — $5 million settlement, the largest ever in New York city. Your thoughts now.

ALBERTO RAMOS: Although it’s a comfortable nest egg, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface to the suffering my family and I endured for those years that I was incarcerated. Being incarcerated for this particular crime is sheer hell. Okay. You’re treated like scum. Each and every day of my life behind bars I had to fight or be abused physically, sexually, by correction officers, administrators, and fellow convicts. I mean, there was actually no one to turn to. I was incarcerated for those years, and endlessly I remember trying to convince anyone that would listen that I was innocent. Okay. No one wanted to hear it, because as far as the system was concerned, I went through the system. I was found guilty by a trial, therefore, I was guilty.

AMY GOODMAN: And how was it eventually that you were able to get the case overturned?

ALBERTO RAMOS: Fortunately, I — I mean, that would be a response that I think my attorney would be probably best respond to. He knows the technicalities to it all.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But most people even when they’re in jail falsely convicted rarely have a chance to have an attorney continue to represent them. Most attorneys don’t want to even deal with folks that are already convicted and in jail.

ALBERTO RAMOS: The way I have understood it is that the girl — the family of the child was suing the city, and an investigator for the city was investigating the case. He came across some evidence that was very, very favorable in my case. He made an effort to contact my family, my mother at the time, and explained to her that she needed to get her hands on a very good attorney because there was a lot of holes in my case. That’s how she came across Joel Rudin.

JUAN GONZALEZ: : If it wasn’t for that city worker who did his job correctly you might still be in jail?

ALBERTO RAMOS: Or had a good conscience, yes.

JOEL RUDIN: It was actually a private investigator who was working for the insurance company that insured New York city, and the child and her mother brought a civil suit that the insurance company settled because at that point Alberto was convicted and had no other recourse and they were looking at a huge damage judgment that the jury undoubtedly would have awarded. After the case was settled, the private investigator, Anthony Judge who had absolutely no obligation to do anything further took it upon himself to get permission from the insurance company and from the attorneys to turn over the evidence that he believed showed that Alberto was innocent, and then I was able to take that evidence at a hearing in front of a very fine judge, John Collins, show that the evidence had been withheld and that it destroyed the prosecution’s case.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain this key evidence?

JOEL RUDIN: Well, there were really three main parts to the prosecution’s case. One was, of course, the testimony of the child. She was —- she did not identify Alberto in the courtroom. She said a man named Alberto who working at the day care center had raped her. Secondly, there was the testimony of the pediatrician that in her expert opinion, the child’s mere ability to discuss or describe sex and the vaginal irritation proved that she was abused because how else would a five-year-old girl be able to describe sexual acts and third, testimony of the child’s grandmother that she picked up the child on that day and the child was very upset and tearful. It turned out that the district attorney’s office had in its file evidence from H.R.A. and the day care center that first of all showed that the child on numerous occasions had told H.R.A. investigators that nothing had happened at all. Secondly, that the child, as you described earlier, Amy, had a history of compulsively masturbating in class which would tend to explain the irritation and the child used to act out sex with dolls and had all of this inappropriate knowledge for a five-year-old suggesting she may very well have been abused or neglected at home. Third there was a sign in—, sign-out book that showed that the child’s aunt rather than the grandmother picked up the child that day from school. The testimony of the grandmother was totally false.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The most stunning part of this, because the — the false convictions occur obviously from time to time, but this is obviously prosecutorial misconduct, but when you began to do research in relationship to the lawsuit that Alberto filed after his conviction was overturned, you discovered an enormous number of cases of prosecutorial misconduct in the past that had been — no one had done anything about. Can you talk about that?

JOEL RUDIN: It’s virtually impossible to sue prosecutors personally or directly for their misconduct because of a — of a legal doctrine known as prosecutorial immunity, which is established basically so that prosecutors who of course have a very strong interest in prosecuting crime fully, won’t feel inhibited. Of course, they should be inhibited from doing what they did in this case. But nevertheless, in order to prevail in the lawsuit, I had to find a way to hold the city of New York liable because the prosecutor was immune. There are legal theories that have been developed more in the context of police misconduct that a city or municipality can be held liable where a policy or practice of police misconduct is tolerated or encouraged and that causes a police officer to commit a particular illegal act.

I tried to apply that to prosecutors, and I made a discovery request in 1997 for 72 cases reported by — reported cases I mean, in the law books where most appellate courts found various forms of misconduct similar to Alberto’s case by prosecutors. I made a demand in the civil discovery process for any disciplinary records at the Bronx D.A.’s office. They resisted for four years. They tried to get the lawsuit dismissed. The appellate court upheld the claim and ordered them to produce these files and they resisted for another year. And then finally in September of 2002, they turned over the personnel records including the payroll records and the evaluations of a total of 74 prosecutors involved in these 72 cases. Some of them were repeat offenders. Some of them were involved in four or five reported cases of very serious prosecutorial abuse and in only one — only one of the 74 prosecutors was ever disciplined. In 1979, the then D.A. Mario Marolla, the one who persecuted Alberto docked this prosecutor four weeks pay and three months later gave him a bonus, and then continued to raise his pay for the next five years until he finally resigned. He also interceded with the disciplinary committee of the court, which is the body that disciplines all attorneys and apparently had in mind disciplining this prosecutor and he pleaded in a letter to the disciplining committee not to discipline this prosecutor and he was not disciplined.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we wrap up this discussion, Alberto Ramos, what are you doing today?

ALBERTO RAMOS: Today — making plans perhaps to return back to school back to college as soon as everything kind of winds down a little bit.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Alberto Ramos served seven years after being wrongfully convicted in 1984 of rape, in 1992, the court found the trial prosecutor had withheld evidence that most likely would have exonerated him. 11 years later, he won a $5 million lawsuit, in the largest wrongful conviction settlement in New York state history. Joel Rudin, his attorney. Thank you very much.

JOEL RUDIN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now! When we come back, a man who has been pardoned off of death row in Illinois is now running for the Illinois state house. He joins us for the second part of a conversation. Stay with us.

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