By Jeffrey Deskovic
“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.
Vietnam veteran, Barry Gibbs, was a postal worker who went about his business doing his job when, one day, he was framed for murder by former New York Police Department Detective Louis Eppolito, and sentenced to twenty years to life in prison.
Eppolito and his partner, Stephen Caracappa, were dubbed by media as the “Mafia cops” because, for decades, they worked as hit men for the New York mob.
The Innocence Project had been looking into the Gibbs case for a while, but they closed it once they learned DNA evidence had been destroyed.
Ordinarily, Gibbs would have rotted in prison without surcease. He was eventually cleared in 2005 because the F.B.I. raided Eppolito’s house and discovered a file on Gibbs even though Eppolito had long since retired from the NYPD and moved to Las Vegas with Caracappa.
Eppolito was asked why he had the Gibbs file. He claimed it was for a movie. Eppolito had cynically penned an autobiography, Mafia Cop: The Story of an Honest Cop Whose Family Was the Mob, and appeared in minor roles in movies, including “Predator 2” and Martin scorsese’s classic gangster film, “Goodfellas.”
In 2006, Eppolito and Caracappa were convicted of eight murders and conspiracy to commit murder, plus racketeering, extortion, narcotics, illegal gambling, and obstruction of justice stemming from crimes they committed in New York during the 1980s and early 1990s, and in Las Vegas in the 2000s. The trial judge overturned the convictions because he believed the statute of limitations had run on the racketeering statute, and conviction on that charge inflamed the jury to convict on the other charges. The federal Court of Appeals in Manhattan disagreed and reinstated the verdicts.
On March 6, 2009, Eppolito was sentenced to life in prison plus 100 years, and Caracappa received life plus eighty years. Each was fined more than $4 million.
The phony case against Gibbs began unraveling with discovery of Eppolito’s file. Gibbs had been convicted primarily on the testimony of one man, Peter Mitchell, who claimed he saw a man dump the slain body of Virginia Robertson in a park, and later picked Gibbs out of a police line-up as that man. However, two decades later, Mitchell admitted to federal agents he had been coerced by Eppolitoto to falsely identify Gibbs as the perpetrator.
After his release, Gibbs publicly stated his life circumstances were difficult. He was living on food stamps in a subsidized room. His relationship with his son had been severely damaged, and he was very bitter about the life stolen from him by a corrupt cop on the Mafia’s payroll.
Gibbs attended Eppolito’s sentencing hearing and confronted him: “Mr. Eppolito! Do you remember me? I’m the guy you put away for nineteen years, I’m Barry Gibbs. You don’t remember me? You don’t remember what you did to my family?”
On June 3, 2010, New York City agreed to pay Gibbs $9.9 million, and he also settled another lawsuit against the state for $1.9 million, netting him $11.8 million before expenses and attorney fees. According to the New York Times, it was the largest settlement of its kind in history. Gibbs was represented by the law firm of Neufeld, Scheck & Brustin which specializes in federal civil rights lawsuits. Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck were founders of the Innocence Project.
The pain Gibbs endured is incalculable, and no amount of money could ever make up for the time he lost in prison. The suffering of the wrongfully convicted is unique and uniquely terrible.
It is not simply the loss of nineteen years of freedom that causes so much pain. It is all that goes with it: prison violence, abusive guards, arbitrary rules, living in constant danger of assault, missing family milestones like births and funerals, missing a son growing up, losing connections to family members and friends, etc.
Gibbs also lost nineteen years of wages he otherwise would have earned. He likely will need mental health services to cope with the trauma of his experience.
I met with Gibbs and talked to him several times over the years. He is typical of exonerees who have great difficulty reintegrating back into society after they are released. He should not have been forced to live in such a deplorable state —on food stamps and in welfare housing—until his lawsuits settled.
No doubt the city settled for such a tidy sum for fear a jury might have awarded Gibbs a higher amount. Frankly, the city and state got off easy.
Media reports that Gibbs’s life has improved somewhat. His relationship with his son is better, and he now has a girlfriend, a woman he knew before he was locked up, and there are three grandkids in his life.
Gibbs previously shared with me that he wanted to leave New York and move to Florida once his civil lawsuits were concluded. He now has the money to carry out that plan.
Large compensation awards send an important message to the government about the price it will pay for employing rogue members of law enforcement. Such awards function as a deterrent to similar official misconduct.
A settlement or favorable verdict also represents an acknowledgment for the victim of wrongful conviction that he was wronged. That sense of justice is critical.
Not surprisingly, Gibbs is mindful the criminal justice system is still broken. “I think the whole criminal justice system needs an overhaul,” he told me. “It’s not just the cops; it’s the whole justice system. They’re lucky that they got away with what they got away with.”
Hopefully, Gibbs’s record settlement will provide him some small amount of happiness free of courts and legal proceedings. He can now try to live in a way that was simply not possible before.
Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Jeff is now a practicing attorney.