by Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica, and Sergio Hernandez, special to ProPublica
The murder case against Tony Bennett seemed pretty straightforward.
Shortly before midnight on May 7, 1994, police found a 26-year-old man in the foyer of an apartment building near Flushing, Queens. Jake Powell was near death, blood pouring from a gunshot wound, but he managed to speak the name of the man who had shot him: "Tony Bennett."
Bennett, a two-time felon, was eventually captured, convicted of murder, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
But Bennett never served anywhere near that sentence. He has, in fact, been free since 2008 because Claude Stuart, the former Queens assistant district attorney who handled his case, violated a basic rule of law by withholding critical evidence from Bennett's attorney. A state appeals court overturned Bennett's conviction and released him after 13 years in prison.
That early release has freed Bennett to describe his role in a crime he had insisted for two decades he did not commit.
"He was wrapped up in a shower curtain in the corner of the bathroom, shivering and shaking," Bennett recalled of Powell, who Bennett said had terrorized his family for years. "He was saying all this, 'Please, please, don't hurt me, don't shoot, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' And I said, 'Yeah, I'm sorry, too.' And I did what I had to do."
Stuart's wrongdoing in the Bennett case wasn't his only act of misconduct. He manipulated evidence in another case, and that conviction wound up being reversed by the courts, too. But his bosses took no action after that misconduct became known. A state disciplinary committee reprimanded Stuart, but that fact remained secret from the public. Indeed, Stuart's superiors did not act until another conviction was overturned, and Stuart was found to have lied to a trial judge about the whereabouts of a key defense witness.
That, at last, cost Stuart his job.
Stuart's career, across many years and with repeated abuses, helps demonstrate a broader truth: New York's system of attorney oversight is ill-equipped or unwilling to identify, punish and deter prosecutors who abuse their authority.
A ProPublica analysis of more than a decade's worth of state and federal court rulings found more than two dozen instances in which judges explicitly concluded that city prosecutors had committed harmful misconduct. In each instance, these abuses were sufficient to prompt courts to throw out convictions.
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