In my life as a lawyer, I've been privileged to play a role in exonerating a number of innocent men and women. But last week, as I sat in a Brooklyn courtroom, waiting for State Supreme Court Judge Matthew J. D'Emic to vacate the convictions of David McCallum and Willie Stuckey, I knew I was witnessing something special.
Throughout my career, I have been searching for moments of grace (and mercy and forgiveness) in the criminal justice system but these moments have been few and far between. I never thought that it would be a prosecutor -- King's County District Attorney Ken Thompson -- and his Conviction Review ("CRU") -- that would show me the meaning of grace.
In the past, when my clients have been exonerated, I have seen prosecutors who have refused to acknowledge that my clients were wrongly convicted - even in cases where DNA evidence proved that someone else had committed the crime. Other prosecutors have implied that my clients were probably guilty but stated that they were no longer able to prove their guilt because the evidence of their guilt had grown stale. These responses to what were clear and horrific miscarriages of justice were devoid of grace.
District Attorney Thompson's message at the pre-exoneration press conference was different in both tone and content. He announced in crystal clear terms that "there was not a shred of any evidence" linking McCallum or his co-defendant Willie Stuckey to the three different crime scenes in the case. He stated that the CRU believed that their confessions were false after discovering that detectives had fed details of the crimes, including "false facts" to the boys. He announced that his investigators had interviewed a new witness who told them that she had never possessed the murder weapon and had not passed the gun to the man who supposedly gave it to Mr. Stuckey. This new evidence undermined the testimony of the snitch whose statements had led the police to Mr. Stuckey.
In short, even though he could not prove that McCallum and Stuckey were absolutely innocent and even though he could not yet prove who killed Nathan Blenner in October, 1985, District Attorney Thompson and his CRU still moved to vacate their convictions. He did so because he no longer had any confidence in their convictions. He did so because their convictions lacked "integrity."
These comments alone would have distinguished Mr. McCallum's exoneration from the others I have experienced. But there was more. It was the smaller touches, the unseen acts of kindness, that have left me reeling.
District Attorney Thompson insisted that Mr. Stuckey's name be cleared at the same time as Mr. McCallum's even though Mr. Stuckey had died in prison in 2001. He contacted Mr. Stuckey's family members and invited them to court and his CRU attorneys waited for them to arrive and be seated in court before proceeding with the motion.
The CRU had arranged for Mr. McCallum to be processed out of prison before his day in court. It sent a team of detectives to pick up Mr. McCallum and to drive him back to Brooklyn, instead of forcing him to be shackled and transported by correctional staff in a prison van.
When Mr. McCallum arrived at the courthouse, detectives took him to a conference room at the CRU's headquarters, brought him a lunch of barbequed chicken, and allowed David to relax with his legal team and to meet with the District Attorney and members of the CRU before the court proceedings.
When the time came to move David to the court building, the detectives took him over early, parked him in a conference room outside of the court, and took off his handcuffs. This allowed Mr. McCallum to walk into the courtroom through the front doors unshackled -- like a free man with his head held high.
Processing David out of prison early also allowed David to be with this family and to go directly home instead of being sent back to prison to be "processed out," a routine which can take hours or even days if the prison is located far away from the court. After waiting nearly three decades to be exonerated, forcing Mr. McCallum to go back to prison one last time would have been a cruel and unnecessary indignity.
Paying attention to these smaller details matters. This is where grace lies. The humane way in which McCallum and Stuckey were exonerated will be an essential step in Mr. McCallum's healing process. It won't erase the pain and the hurt of the nearly three decades that were stolen from him, but it will send him back into the world with less bitterness, less anger, and more hope as he tackles the enormous challenges of life after exoneration.
This little-known verse from "Amazing Grace" aptly sums up Mr. McCallum's twenty-nine year struggle for justice and the role that prosecutorial grace played in bringing him home.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.