By Marcus E. Howard
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A 49-year-old New York man took his first steps as a free man in more than two decades on Thursday after a judge vacated his 1991 murder conviction as part of the Brooklyn district attorney's review of dozens of decades-old cases considered questionable.
Andre Hatchett, convicted of murdering a woman in a Brooklyn playground in 1991, was released on the recommendation of District Attorney Ken Thompson after a court hearing.
"After a thorough and fair review of this case by my Conviction Review Unit, I've concluded that, in the interest of justice, Andre Hatchett's murder conviction should not stand and that he should be released from custody immediately," Thompson said in a statement.
During his campaign for district attorney in 2013, Thompson promised to set up the unit to review questionable convictions, many of them dating back to the 1980's and 1990's.
In total, Thompson's Conviction Review Unit has recommended vacating 19 convictions and affirmed 38 others. About 100 more cases are pending review.
A common thread in many of the cases that have been vacated was a lack of due process involving questionable testimony or evidence, according to the district attorney's office.
In February 1991, police found the body of Neda Mae Carter, 38, nude and badly beaten. The only witness, Jerry Williams, described by authorities as a career criminal, testified that Hatchett killed her. After a mistrial due to ineffective defense counsel, a jury convicted Hatchett of second-degree murder, for which he was sentenced to 25 years.
Later the CRU determined that Hatchett, who had been shot six months before the murder, could not have physically committed the crime. Hatchett was represented by the New York-based Innocence Project during the review.
Unlike many of the convictions reviewed by Thompson's Conviction Review Unit, the Hatchett case was not connected to Louis Scarcella, a now-retired New York City homicide detective who has been accused of coercing false confessions from suspects.
Scarcella and his attorneys have denied any wrongdoing and Thompson's office declined to say whether he may face investigation.
(Editing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Chris Reese)