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Erie County wrongfully convicted 11 people. Now it's owning up.

No one knows how it happened, but two decades later, the outcome is clear — 11 people were wrongfully convicted here because prosecutors continued relying on a law that courts had already invalidated.

In an effort to remedy that mistake, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn said he will entertain legal attempts to vacate those convictions.

Flynn also made it clear his office is no longer using the child exploitation statute that led to the wrongful convictions, and he recently sent letters to local police agencies informing them of the change.

"Bottom line, I will no longer prosecute these cases," he said during an interview this week.

Flynn's announcement is the latest chapter in a story that revolves around a 1997 federal court injunction declaring the child exploitation law unconstitutional and ordering New York's district attorneys to stop enforcing it. But prosecutors here, and perhaps elsewhere around the state, continued citing the law while trying to convict  suspects in pornography cases involving children. Erie County prosecutors won at least 11 convictions on that count, years after the court invalidated it.

In her 1997 decision, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska of Manhattan found the statute — dissemination of indecent material to minors — to be a violation of the Commerce Clause and ordered a permanent injunction.

Her decision came in a case, American Library Association v. Pataki, that focused on concerns that the law was overly broad and might ensnare harmless communications.

Even now, 21 years later, Flynn maintains the county never got word of that injunction. He says a search of his office's records and interviews with past DAs turned up no evidence of any notice to the county.

11 people in Erie County wrongfully convicted under invalidated law, judge says

State officials insist a letter advising local DAs of the injunction and its ramifications went out in 1997 from then-state Attorney General Dennis Vacco.

"If the letter got here, no one can find it," Flynn said this week. "We have no record of ever receiving it."

Flynn, who took office nearly two years ago, said he didn't learn of the injunction until May of this year when his office was subpoenaed as part of an unrelated federal prosecution.

Later, when the judge in that case discovered Erie County was still enforcing the law and showing no signs of stopping, he intervened.

"The open and casual disregard for an enforceable federal injunction — not to put too fine a point on it — stinks," U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott said at one point.

Flynn noted a pending case in the Town of Tonawanda in which the defendant originally was facing the dissemination to minors charge, but now will only face other charges in the case. He said that was indicative of the other 11 cases, in which defendants typically were convicted on other related counts as well as on the dissemination to minors charge that was invalidated.

The county's wrongful prosecutions are in the spotlight because of a federal child pornography case and the defendant's efforts to suppress evidence seized by the State Police and later turned over to the FBI.

To justify the search warrant that led to the evidence, a laptop seized from defendant Cameron Stroke in 2011, investigators said the West Seneca man was suspected of disseminating indecent material to minors — the same offense at the heart of the statute the judge struck down.

Stroke, who is now charged with possession of child pornography, is using the county's history of wrongful prosecutions to raise questions about the legitimacy of the search warrant.

During a recent court appearance, his lawyers challenged the county's claims of ignorance and noted that stories about Preska's injunction appeared in 1997 editions of The Buffalo News and New York Times.

"There's a compounding of negligence by law enforcement that raises a certain odor," defense lawyer James W. Harrington told Scott at one point.

A short story in The News on June 21, 1997, described Preska's ruling that the law "represents an unconstitutional intrusion into interstate commerce."

But federal prosecutors claim the Erie County District Attorney's Office was not the only law enforcement agency unaware of the injunction. They also claim the State Police were uninformed.

In an effort to keep Stroke's laptop as evidence in his case, they are arguing that the investigators who used the law to justify a search warrant were not acting in bad faith, but were simply unaware of the injunction years earlier.

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