Connecticut Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. resigns, as Fasano calls for legislative review of claims

February 22, 2016

New Haven Register

HARTFORD >> Tears flowed down Robin Smith’s cheeks during a press conference Friday, as the Smith family continued to speak out against the state claims commissioner’s decision to award $16.8 million to four men whose convictions in a 1996 slaying were overturned.

A short time later, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office confirmed that state Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. had submitted his letter of resignation.

“This is an independent office, and Mr. Vance submitted his resignation letter a week ago. We are already working to identify a new individual to appoint,” Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia said Friday.

The resignation is effective March 4.

The Smith family had joined Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, and Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who announced a measure that, if adopted, would allow state lawmakers to review future wrongful incarceration claims.

According to the state statute on compensation for wrongful incarceration, the claims commissioner “shall order the immediate payment to such person of compensation for such wrongful incarceration.”

That line, according Fasano, “has ambiguity and needs to be addressed.”

“The bill of 2008 requires a preponderance of evidence of innocence, not simply an item which requires a retrying of the case,” he said.

In his ruling, Vance had said, “I find based on the evidence that the charges were dismissed on grounds consistent with innocence.”

But Fasano, in announcing Friday’s press conference, disputed this, saying in a release that “the Office of the Attorney General has found that a recent wrongful conviction monetary award was given after the state’s Claims Commissioner misinterpreted state law, which requires proof of innocence for compensation.”

The charges against the four men who this year were awarded $4.2 million each — Carlos Ashe, Sean Adams, Darcus Henry and Johnny Johnson — were dismissed in 2013.

The men, who at the time were known members of a notorious New Haven street gang, were convicted in the 1996 slaying of Robin Smith’s son, Jason.

The convictions of the four men were overturned in part because a key witness in the 1997 trial had been offered a reduced prison sentence on unrelated charges in a separate case in exchange for his testimony against the four men. But during his testimony in the case against the four, witness Andre Clark said he hadn’t been offered a deal, and this information was not corrected during the trial.

The Supreme Court concluded, “it is highly probable that Clark’s credibility would have been further undermined, and most likely seriously so, if the jury knew, first, that he had been promised leniency on his pending charges in return for his cooperation and, second, that he was lying when he denied that he had been promised consideration for such cooperation.”

The state decided not to put the men on trial again, in part because the key witness, Clark, is dead, slain in 2008.

Fasano said he believes, going forward, such a claim for wrongful incarceration “cannot be awarded until it’s gone through the process of judiciary weigh-in and therefore victims families can weigh in along with the House and Senate,” and “the need to establish evidence of innocence before awarding money.”

Under the state’s compensation statute, claimants are required to establish six criteria to qualify for compensation. According to the statute, indisputable facts establish the first five: that the claimants were convicted of a crime; are innocent of those crimes; were sentenced to prison; served part of the sentence; and had their convictions vacated.

The sixth criterion requires claimants to establish that charges were dismissed either on grounds of innocence or a ground consistent with innocence.

“There is no dispute that the claimants have clearly established the first five criteria,” Vance also said in his memorandum of decision.

Raymona Holloway, Jason Smith’s aunt, said she hoped the decision would have been reversed. She said they are speaking out so others families won’t have to deal with what she and others feel is an injustice.

But Victor Sipos, representing the four men, said a scheduled press conference to allow the family of Jason Smith to speak was unfortunate.

“While the family is entitled to express their views, the stated purpose of the conference is to promote the attorney general’s inaccurate view that Claims Commissioner Vance misinterpreted the state’s Compensation Statute,” said Sipos.

“This is based on speculation that the four men might not be innocent. In fact, there can be no dispute about the four men’s innocence or their right to compensation for the horrible injustice they suffered during the nearly 17 years they spent in prison for crimes they did not commit,” he said.

Sipos said it is understandable that the family of Jason Smith suffers from his senseless murder.

“Everyone should be able to empathize with such grief. But it helps nobody to perpetuate the falsehood that the four New Haven men had anything to do with that murder,” he said.

The case arose from a December 1996 incident in which a group of men wearing ski masks shot at an opposing group that included Jason Smith, Andre Clark, Marvin Ogman and Terence Blow at the Farnam Courts public housing complex. Smith was killed, Clark and Ogman were injured and Blow escaped without injury, according to a court brief.

Police at the time alleged the shooting was part of a gang feud.

About two years after Smith’s murder, Clark appeared in Superior Court to plead guilty to three felonies that carried a potential prison term of 35 years. Clark had earlier cooperated with state prosecutors to reduce his sentence, according to a court brief and Vance’s ruling.

According to the state Supreme Court ruling, Clark, who was Jason Smith’s cousin, claimed he had always known the shooters’ identities, but said he had kept it secret because he didn’t want to be a snitch. Clark told prosecutors if the claimants were imprisoned for the rest of their lives, he would be unable to get proper revenge.

Clark later said he wanted to tell the truth because he no longer intended to seek revenge and did not want to create hardship for his family, the court document said.

In 2008, Clark was found shot to death near the side of a building at 50 Grand Ave.

Smith is still looking for answers about who pulled the trigger and killed her son.

“I don’t want this to happen again to anyone and to anyone else’s family,” she said.