With the West Indian Day Parade just hours away, steel pan drummers filled Labor Day morning with pulsating rhythms. As floats carried revelers along Flatbush Avenue for the pre-dawn Caribbean celebration of J'Ouvert, a special homecoming took place.
Waving the flag of his native Trinidad, 39-year-old Colin Warner rode on a float of his own, family and friends by his side. Band members swayed to the music, wearing T-shirts that declared "VICTORY FOR OUR HERO COLIN WARNER."
Warner, an electrician's apprentice who lives in East Flatbush, has lived through the impossible, twice over. He went to jail for 21 years for a murder he did not commit, and successfully mounted his own case--with the help of a devoted childhood friend, Carl King--to convince a judge to set him free.
For Warner, with King by his side, there were autographs to sign, hugs, tears and well-wishes to share. One NYPD officer asked to shake hands with him. "It still throws me that people would feel this way," Warner says modestly. "It's not for me personally. People have family and friends caught up in the system, and I'm just out here representing how they feel."
These days, Warner revels in the simple pleasures he never knew if he'd ever experience again--a cool breeze, a cell phone, time with his wife and her 13-year-old daughter. "A lot of guys who come out of prison don't have a family structure, so this is a blessing in itself," he says.
Suddenly, Warner has returned to a city he had never truly adjusted to in the first place. "Slowly, I'm getting there, but I think it's harder than I thought it would be," he admits. Entering a bus in Brooklyn recently, Warner incorrectly swiped his Metrocard. "I jammed it and my wife was laughing because everyone else got on the bus for free."
Warner takes these things in stride, but the gut-wrenching truth of stolen years is never far from his mind. "I am relieved that this nightmare is over, but it is not really over because I will have to live with this for the rest of my life," he says.
Last April, Warner and his lawyer, William Robedee, filed a $92 million claim under the Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act, which provides for compensation for people who have been wrongfully convicted in New York State courts. They have also filed a notice of claims against the NYPD and the Brooklyn District Attorney's office, for a civil rights suit charging that the NYPD deliberately misled child witnesses during interrogations and that the D.A.'s office maliciously prosecuted Warner by ignoring evidence pointing to his innocence. The state Attorney General and Brooklyn D.A. both declined to comment on the pending cases.
A Hollywood studio would reject the story behind Warner's conviction and his eventual release as "over the top." But his story is not unique, and it's a product of some inescapable realities of New York's criminal defense system. Court-assigned lawyers for the indigent don't have the resources to conduct their own investigations; they're paid so little, in fact, that they can barely stay in business, just $25 an hour for out-of-court work. In preparation for trials, defense attorneys have extremely limited access to evidence such as police reports and grand jury minutes--a constraint that also makes it difficult to get a conviction overturned.
"What lawyers need is time: to interview clients, investigate cases, think about them. But fees are so incredibly low that work goes undone," says Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York Defense Association. "That right to counsel, supposedly the crown jewel in the Bill of Rights, is not really counsel at all. If you don't have the tools of forensic evidence, you can appeal the case, but you don't have the evidence to get a conviction overturned." Gradess' organization, which provides support and information to defense lawyers, is ill-equipped to pick up the slack: As a result of this year's state budget cuts, the group has laid off seven staff and closed its intake of new cases.
Court-appointed attorneys agree that they are not equipped to carry out investigations. "Which investigator wants to work for a [court-appointed] attorney? asks Elsie Chandler, a criminal defense lawyer who works with poor clients. "They're not going to work on a case for those who can't afford to take on those cases." Once a verdict is handed down, New York convicts do not have a right to an attorney to get a judgment vacated, no matter how badly a case may have been mishandled.
With a defense so readily hobbled, a prosecution can write most of the script in court. And that's what happened in the case of The People of the State of New York v. Collins Hillary Warner. Sitting in the courtroom during his trial, barely old enough to vote, Warner had to watch helplessly as false testimony from a 16-year-old instantly decided his fate. Judge Albert E. Murray's statement before the sentencing reveals the level of doubt swirling around Warner's involvement: "The system that we have, we put in process. Is it perfect? Is this verdict true? I don't pretend to know. I don't have the capacity to know. I'm not superhuman."
"You hear people say how your life flashes before your eyes? Well that literally happened to me," says Warner. "I was so naïve because I believed that no matter what was being said, I could not be convicted. It was like a snowball effect where it started rolling down the hill and nobody was trying to stop it."
The year was 1980. Brooklyn's streets were surging with new energy. The borough took on a distinct Caribbean flavor as immigrants poured in from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Haiti, and Guyana. The 1980 U.S. Census reported that the areas of Crown Heights and East Flatbush boasted Caribbean populations of well over 20,000.
Warner, then 18, had arrived to New York from Trinidad just two years earlier, joining his mother in Crown Heights. Warner, like others in the Caribbean, was dazzled by tales of how the Big Apple's streets were said to glisten with opportunity and adventure. "Brooklyn was a candy store to me, because Trinidad is a small place," he recalls. "We were always on the streets, not robbing or stealing, but just enjoying life."
Young men from the islands, though, were in for a rude awakening as they received the cold shoulder from some of their black American counterparts. As Rastafarians, Warner and his friends were isolated into their own clique. Run-ins with the police happened often for Rastafarians; their flowing locks and green army jackets stereotypically branded them as a bizarre cult or a menacing band of gun-toting drug dealers.