NEW YORK (AP) — The way Derrick Hamilton tells it, his detour to a false conviction in a fatal 1991 shooting began with an investigator greeting him with a mob-style kiss on the cheek and whispering in his ear.
Hamilton says Detective Louis Scarcella whispered that he was going to put him away — and then set about framing him. Hamilton ended up spending 21 years behind bars before finally finding vindication on Friday in a New York City courtroom.
A judge tossed out Hamilton's murder conviction after prosecutors conceded that the state's key witness in the shooting, the victim's girlfriend, had lied about who did it. The decision came after Hamilton, who was paroled in 2011, won an appellate ruling to reopen his case.
"One day in prison is too much for an innocent man," he said outside court. "It's exhilarating. It's a grateful day."
The dismissal marked the fourth time a conviction involving Scarcella has been vacated amid one of the nation's most ambitious efforts to determine whether old cases were mishandled. About 100 convictions, including roughly 70 linked to the retired detective, have come under scrutiny by Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson.
Hamilton, 49, and a handful of others who say they too were falsely convicted arrived in court on Friday wearing caps emblazoned with "Wrongfully Convicted" on the front and "Victims of Detective Scarcella" on the side.
In asking for the dismissal, prosecutor Mark Hale didn't mention Scarcella. But he said a review found that a purported eyewitness who testified about the fatal shooting was "unreliable, incredible and untruthful, and because of that Mr. Hamilton's due process rights were violated."
The review found that the girlfriend had testified that the victim was shot in the chest by a lone gunman despite medical evidence he was hit in the back. It also uncovered ballistic evidence that there was more than one gun fired.
Hamilton's lawyers have claimed that Scarcella was a corrupt investigator who railroaded their client by coercing the witness into falsely identifying him as the shooter. The allegation is among several accusing Scarcella of intimidating witnesses and suspects to produce false evidence for the sake of closing murder investigations — something the former detective has denied.
"To date there has been no finding by any judge, nor has there been a statement by any prosecutor, to sustain the sensational claims that have appeared in the press that Detective Scarcella contributed to any person's wrongful conviction," his lawyers said in a statement Friday.
Hamilton remained in prison even after the witness had recanted, his lawyers said. Over the years, the inmate steadfastly refused to admit guilt, even when it hurt his chances for an earlier release by the parole board.
"I couldn't say I killed a man I didn't kill," he said.
Asked if he harbors any resentment toward the witness, he said, "I think she was a pawn. She was as much a victim as I am."