ALBANY — A man who spent nine years in prison after an unjust murder conviction has asked New York’s top court to reinstate his damages case against the state, claiming his confession to Rochester police was coerced while he was mentally ill.
Douglas Warney, 49, was convicted of stabbing William Beason to death in 1996 and exonerated a decade later by DNA tests that identified the killer, who is now in prison. Warney’s case was taken up by the Innocence Project, a national nonprofit organization that works to clear the wrongly convicted. Prosecutors had initially opposed the genetic testing.
The Court of Claims dismissed his lawsuit for wrongful conviction and imprisonment, finding Warney was unlikely to prove that he didn’t cause his own conviction by confessing. A midlevel court agreed.
Arguments at the Court of Appeals are set for Tuesday. The dollar amount of the claim hasn’t been set.
Attorneys for Warney, a convicted burglar, said police had taken him to a psychiatric emergency ward because he was setting off fire alarms, they knew his mental health history and told him crime details put into the confession that he couldn’t have known.
“If his entire interrogation had been videotaped he never would have been convicted,” attorney Peter Neufeld said. His client had been diagnosed with AIDS-related dementia and had an IQ of 68. “The only way he could have gotten those details was if police fed them to him during the interrogation.”
Officer Stephen Scott, Rochester police spokesman, said it’s policy not to comment on pending litigation.
In court papers, state lawyers said lower court rulings were correct, that Warney’s repeated and voluntary self-incriminating statements to police bar him from recovering damages. Warney had initially contacted police, saying he had information about the murder.
“That his confession has now been shown to be false and that it contains non-public details of the crime do not establish that it was coerced,” Assistant Solicitor General Frank Walsh wrote. “In view of the totality of claimant’s conduct, the courts below correctly dismissed the claim on the ground that it was unlikely that claimant could prove, by the high standard of clear and convincing evidence, that he did not, by his own conduct, cause or bring about his conviction.”
Court of Claims Judge Renee Minarik dismissed the lawsuit based on briefs and the state’s dismissal motion, Neufeld said. “She never even allowed us discovery, even though our guy was unquestionably innocent.”
Prosecutors statewide are pushing for videotaping interrogations, which reduce claims of both coerced and false confessions. Authorities in many counties are starting to do it, and some now do the recordings in all felony cases.
Nine claims of wrongful conviction were filed in 2010 against the state and five the year before, said Jennifer Givner, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.