Last week, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced he was moving to dismiss 90 convictions involving Joseph Franco, an NYPD detective who was indicted in 2019 for lying under oath about three separate drug sales which he claimed to have witnessed. Now Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has agreed to vacate and dismiss approximately 100 more convictions in which Franco played a key role, Gothamist/WNYC has learned.
The move comes nearly two years after Manhattan prosecutors first brought criminal charges against the former NYPD detective, after discovering video footage allegedly showing that three drug sales in Manhattan, which he swore to under oath, did not take place as he described them.
The announcement also comes one day after the Legal Aid Society, the Exoneration Project, and several other organizations sent a letter to District Attorney Vance and Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark demanding they “vacate all convictions in which evidence of guilt was purportedly obtained or produced” by Detective Franco.
Vance’s sweeping move, once enacted, will represent one of the largest conviction purges in state history. And advocates are hoping for similar action from the Bronx District Attorney’s Office.
Elizabeth Felber, a wrongful convictions attorney with The Legal Aid Society, said more dismissals would signal to New Yorkers that conduct like Franco’s will not be tolerated. “Prosecutors must play a fundamental role holding police to account for misconduct, and we expect action on this issue immediately,” she said.
If Bronx prosecutors take a similar step as their colleagues in Brooklyn and Manhattan, nearly three hundred convictions tied to a single detective could be wiped away.
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Bronx DA spokesperson Patrice O'Shaughnessy says that her office began its own conviction review two years ago and has since identified approximately 150 cases in which Detective Franco served as an undercover officer between 2011 and 2015, which resulted in conviction.
The unit will recommend the dismissal of all convictions where Detective Franco played an “essential” role, according to O’Shaughnessy. Thus far, the Bronx District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit has reviewed 116 of the cases in which Franco served as an undercover, and has found in most of them that he did play a key role.
Karen Newirth, a staff attorney with The Exoneration Project, another signatory to the letter, argues the time-consuming nature of the DAs’ case-by-case reviews have denied dozens of New Yorkers critical legal relief. Instead of spending time looking for exonerating evidence in years-old cases, such as CCTV footage, she says, the perjury for which Franco was indicted should be enough to justify the prompt dismissal of all other convictions that rest upon his testimony.
“Folks who were convicted based on the word of Officer Franco daily endure the collateral consequences of their wrongful conviction,” Newirth said. “Every day, they are unable to get jobs, they are unable to get student loans, they may be unable to live in or even visit family in public housing. They shouldn’t spend an additional day, much less an additional year or two years under the cloud of a wrongful conviction.”
Javian Torres is one of dozens of Manhattan residents who Detective Franco arrested over the course of his career.
In 2016, Torres says he and two friends were hanging out in Tompkins Square Park when they were approached by a man they thought was homeless offering them LSD. Torres, who was 16 at the time, said they declined, but the man insisted. “He was like, ‘No, here, just take it, take it, try it. And if you like it, I have more,’” the Lower East Side native remembers.
The teenager swallowed the pill he says the man handed to him. A few minutes later, as the high school students were about to sit down in another part of the park to smoke his friend’s joint, three plainclothes officers walked up to them.
Two looked out of place wearing jeans, polo shirts, and what Torres calls “beat-up cop shoes.” But the third, a skinny Hispanic man with a slight beard, was dressed for the part—designer clothes, nice sneakers, and a hat with colors to go with the rest of the outfit—Detective Joseph Franco.
“He was dressed nicely, like somebody who you’d see in the neighborhood, who was probably doing one of two things, selling drugs or [who] had a nice janitor job,” the Manhattan resident recalls.
Torres says Franco flashed his badge and started patting him down against a nearby gate. As the detective was kicking his legs apart searching for drugs, Torres insisted he had nothing on him. That’s when, he says, the detective said aloud, “I don’t care if you have anything on you. You’re going to jail tonight.”
Torres did go to jail that night, and was charged with a felony drug sale, an allegation which he says was completely false, “I didn’t have any drugs, money, nothing.” Though his family was not wealthy, his mother found him a private attorney and the case was eventually dismissed.
Today, Torres has a stable job as a building porter and has stayed out of legal trouble. But the young man, now 21, worries about the other people whom Franco arrested and who were not so lucky.
“This guy is a detective in a narcotics unit whose word is supposed to mean something,” he said. “If this guy is willing to arrest people with no evidence whatsoever just because he already put the effort into it, he just wants to get the collar, that’s kind of ridiculous. How can you trust the rest of the criminal justice system?”
Franco’s defense attorney did not respond to repeated requests for comment about Torres’s claims or the pending criminal indictment against him.
George Joseph reported this story for the Gothamist/WNYC Race & Justice Unit. If you have a tip, or if you work or have worked in a prosecutor's office, a law enforcement agency or the courts, email reporter George Joseph at email@example.com. You can also text him tips via the encrypted phone app Signal, or otherwise, at 929-486-4865.