Brooklyn Orders Review of 50 Murder Cases

May 17, 2013

3991300398_1766f3484a.jpgPolice misconduct lawyers at Pintas & Mullins highlight an article recently published in the New York Times, detailing the reopening of every murder case that resulted in a guilty verdict from the work of one detective. The review is being conducted by the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Brooklyn district attorney's office.

The detective, Louis Scarcella, handled many of Brooklyn's most notorious crimes during the 1980s and 1990s. Recent examinations of his cases, however, reveal disturbing patterns in his work, such as repeated use of the same eyewitnesses. Dozens of inmates and prisoner advocacy groups have also contacted the district attorney's office to air their suspicions and grievances about Scarcella.

The main eyewitness in question was a prostitute addicted to crack, who testified at several Scarcella murder prosecutions. During one case in the late1980s, the woman testified that she witnessed a murder through a keyhole in a closet door. She was the only eyewitness. The accused family hired an investigator, who found no keyhole in the closet door. The plaintiff was acquitted, but later convicted in an entirely separate murder case, where the same eyewitness was used.

The prostitute was used as an eyewitness in about six other unrelated trials, most of which led to convictions. At least three of the wrongfully imprisoned inmates, after more than twenty years behind bars, still proclaim their innocence.

The district attorney's office will give special scrutiny to the cases that used this eyewitness and to others that relied on a single eyewitness or confession. Among their work, the Brooklyn staff will be re-interviewing available witnesses and studying new evidence. If their findings point in any way to an unjust conviction, prosecutors will likely seek for its dismissal.

The issue surrounding Scarcella emerged in March 2013 when a New York judge freed a man, David Ranta, who wrongfully spent 23 years in prison for the murder of a rabbi. Upon further review of the case, prosecutors determined that Ranta's conviction was largely due to the flawed police work of Scarcella and his partner. The flawed work included completely failing to pursue a more likely and logical suspect, and removing violent criminals from jail and letting them consume drugs and visit prostitutes in exchange for incriminating Ranta. One witness also stated that Scarcella told him exactly which suspect to choose during lineup identification.

Scarella retired from the NYPD force in 1999. In a recent interview, he stated that the review came as a shock to him, and maintains that he did nothing wrong. He was a Brooklyn North homicide detective during a period when violent crimes in the borough were at record-highs, and departments were overwhelmed. He estimates he was the lead investigator in at least 175 homicides, and played a role in another 175.

A former colleague of Scarcella's stated that detectives in that period often assembled sloppy cases, but that questions and rumors surrounded him even back then. In one 1987 case, the judge said that the witness identification procedures Scarcella used were a classic example of what not to do. The plaintiff in that case was, regardless, convicted.

Another victim, Shabaka Shakur, was interrogated by Scarcella and remembers telling him nothing that could implicate him. Despite this, at his trial, Scarcella produced an incriminating statement the detective swore he took from Shakur. The detective's underlying interrogation notes were missing, however, a mistake that occurred many times in his homicide cases. Nonetheless, Shakur was convicted, based almost completely on the incriminating statement, and has been in prison for 26 years.

Both witnesses and suspects accuse Scarcella of coercing false statements, and several witnesses have recanted their testimonies. One woman told a defense attorney that she lied at trial because Scarcella had threatened her. The judge did not allow her to take the stand again, although the man was still convicted. Four years later, the Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, and the man was acquitted.

Police misconduct lawyers at Pintas & Mullins affirm that there is currently a similar controversy taking place in Chicago, concerning the Area Five Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara. Victims allege Guevara beat and threatened them into making false statements. One Guevara victim was recently awarded $21 million for his wrongful conviction. If you or a loved one was seriously injured or wrongfully imprisoned by a rogue police officer, you have important legal rights, and may be entitled to significant compensation for your pain and suffering.