When Nicole Hamilton would visit her husband, Derrick, in prison, they liked to pretend the prison yard was New York’s Central Park. They would spread out vending machine snacks on a bench and imagine they were having a picnic.
“We were trying to make the best of it,” Nicole recalled. “Trying to make something normal in an abnormal situation.”
They’ve been married 12 years, but their relationship has been marked by hardships few married couples will ever experience.
In 1991, Derrick was convicted for the murder of his friend, Nathaniel Cash, in Brooklyn, where Derrick used to live. The problem? He says he was two hours away that night in New Haven, Connecticut.
Possible police malpractice
Louis Scarcella, one of the New York Police Department detectives who handled the case, produced a witness named Jewel Smith, Cash’s then-girlfriend, who testified that she had seen Derrick shoot Cash in the chest. Later, she recanted her testimony, saying Scarcella had threatened to take her children and put her in prison for violating her own parole if she didn’t agree to be a witness to the murder. Decades later, nearly 50 of Scarcella’s cases would face review from prosecutors for possible malpractice.
Derrick’s case hinged on witness testimony. The prosecution had Smith. The defense had a witness, but that person was hospitalized on the day of the trial. Defense lawyers also knew of two women, Kelly Turner and da’Vette Mahan, who were with Derrick in New Haven the night of the murder. But they couldn’t contact them in time to testify. A defense motion for a delay was denied. Derrick was sentenced to 25 years to life.
During his time in prison, Derrick studied the law. In the 1980s, he had worked as a law library clerk at the Clinton Correctional Facility, where he served time on a manslaughter charge. When he was sent to the Auburn Correctional Facility in 2009, he started a group called the Actual Innocence Team, made up of other inmates who claimed they were wrongfully convicted. Members worked to overturn their own and other inmates’ convictions. In time, Derrick established a reputation as one of the most skilled jailhouse lawyers in the state.
His love for the law kept him sane. He spent 10 years in solitary confinement, locked in a small cell for 23 hours a day, reading law books and filing briefs while his fellow inmates screamed and banged on the walls.
A personal toll
The case took a toll on his personal life. His first wife left him shortly before his trial began in 1992. He met Nicole in New Haven just before his arrest, and she was one of the few friends who visited him in prison.
“He always told me he was innocent, and he always told me he was gonna prove to the world that he was innocent,” Nicole said. “And it just really showed me that your determination, even just your self-will is your power.”
In 2005, Derrick and Nicole were married by a clerk in the Attica Correctional Facility.
Every weekend, Nicole, who lived in Connecticut, would drive six hours to the prison in upstate New York, and back again. For years, she helped her husband from the outside, calling his lawyers to make sure they were working on his case, helping him file motion after motion.
All the while, she was in her own kind of prison, consumed with worry on the days she couldn’t call or visit Derrick, raising her own children from a previous marriage and working full time to support her husband, who looked to her as his lifeline.
“Her calls meant the world to me. It was a matter of having the worst day in the world, then be getting on this phone for 30 minutes and be normal,” Derrick said.
Derrick finally got his break in 2010, when his case was brought to the attention of two people — post-conviction lawyer Jonathan Edelstein, who agreed to help him, and a New York Daily News reporter, who happened to have been outside the Brooklyn State Supreme Court the day Nicole organized a protest to free Derrick. He wrote a story about Derrick’s case.
A letter from Edelstein and the Daily News story were submitted to the parole board, as well as witness affidavits from Turner and Mahan, and in 2011, 21 years after he arrived, Derrick Hamilton walked out of prison.
Then in 2014, he won a landmark appellate case called People v. Hamilton, which established for the first time in New York that if a person charged with a crime could demonstrate “actual innocence,” his conviction could be vacated; the legal term simply means a lack of evidence to convict someone of a crime.
Derrick’s murder conviction was vacated in 2015.
His case is now listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. In recent years, the group has found, the rate of exonerations has risen rapidly in the US, from 87 in 2013 to 166 people last year. Since 1989, 1,900 defendants have been found innocent of the crime for which they were charged, the group found. Nearly half were African-Americans.
These days, Derrick and Nicole are free to take their 4-year-old daughter, Maia, to a park near their home in New Jersey. They spend afternoons laughing and chasing her around the swings. The prison yard is a memory; they don’t have to pretend anymore.