This week in innocence

At the New York Times’ Gotham blog, Michael Powell tells the story of Amine Baba-Ali, who was falsely accused of sexually abusing his daughter during a contentious custody fight.

In 1989, he was convicted of the unspeakable: climbing into bed and raping his 4-year-old daughter. The accusation came from his ex-wife, with whom he was then caught up in a bitter divorce battle. He was found guilty of raping his daughter and was sentenced to 8 1/3 to 25 years.

But he was wrongfully convicted.

In the years to come, multiple courts found that the evidence against him was one legal atrocity piled atop another. The Queens district attorney’s office had hidden exculpatory evidence from the defendant. They denied this at first, only to later acknowledge it in court papers.

Dr. Nadine Haddad Sabbagh, a city health department doctor, examined Mr. Baba-Ali’s daughter months after the alleged assault and claimed to find evidence of rape. Her findings defied rules of science and medicine, according to numerous independent experts. Doctors at two hospitals in Philadelphia had carefully examined Mr. Baba-Ali’s daughter just days after the alleged rape and had found no evidence of abuse.

As an appellate court noted, what was “most troubling” is that no one ever called either of the Philadelphia doctors as witnesses. “Knowing full well that these medical records tended to exonerate the defendant,” the court wrote, the prosecutor failed to give them to the defendant until the eve of trial.

Mr. Baba-Ali would lie awake in his prison cell in the Catskills. “I was living a nightmare,” he said. “How do you reconcile yourself to this?”

In prison, he remarried, and that marriage remains strong. But when he sought to have conjugal visits with his new wife, prison officials set one condition: He had to admit his guilt.

He refused.

Mr. Baba-Ali was released from prison after nearly three years, after a court overturned his conviction. That came after a fierce legal battle waged by his lawyer, Peter Wessel, who still represents him, along with a half-dozen other lawyers. The prison years, however, exacted a toll. An inmate shattered his orbital bone with a single punch to the face.

No agency or public official ever apologized — not the district attorney, not the health department, not the city’s corporation counsel. So he sued.

He was recently awarded a $1.25 million settlement.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."

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Radley Balko · May 19, 2014