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Wrongfully Convicted Prisoners Released as New York Prosecutors Review Tainted Cases; $23.4 Million in Settlements Thus Far

Wrongfully Convicted Prisoners Released as New York Prosecutors Review Tainted Cases; $23.4 Million in Settlements Thus Far

by Mark Wilson

Scores of prisoners from New York City have claimed for years that they were framed by now-retired Brooklyn Detective Louis Scarcella, 63. Based on an investigation into Scarcella’s tactics as well as successful court challenges, it turns out that some of them were.

After 23 years in prison, David Ranta was released in March 2013 when the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office documented a series of problems with Scarcella’s work on his case. Ranta, convicted of fatally shooting a rabbi, accepted a $6.4 million settlement for his wrongful conviction in February 2014; he was one of at least nine prisoners who have been exonerated due to tainted or outright falsified evidence presented or orchestrated by Scarcella during his almost 30 years on the police force.

Following a New York Times investigation of the retired detective, in May 2013 the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit decided to review 71 of Scarcella’s cases once it became clear that he likely helped frame an innocent man and repeatedly used the same pivotal eyewitness in some of his cases – identified as Teresa Gomez, a drug-addicted prostitute.

On January 29, 2015, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced that the investigation into Scarcella’s misconduct would be expanded to include non-homicide felony cases.

“In Brooklyn, so far, we’ve only dealt with claims involving the charge of murder,” Thompson told the New York State Bar Association’s annual Presidential Summit during his keynote address. “But we are now going to embark on reviewing wrongful conviction cases that do not involve the crime of murder.”

While Thompson has dismissed charges against several wrongfully convicted prisoners in the two years since the DA’s investigation began, on April 13, 2015, Rosean S. Hargrave became the first person convicted due to Scarcella’s machinations to be freed by a judge, who blasted the ex-detective’s methodology in obtaining convictions.

Scarcella was accused of failing to follow leads related to other suspects, letting informants out of jail to use drugs and visit prostitutes, telling witnesses which suspects to pick out of lineups, and repeatedly using the same questionable witness.

“The finding of this court is that retired Detective Louis Scarcella was, at the time of the investigation, engaged in false and misleading practices,” Supreme Court Justice ShawnDya Simpson stated. “The pattern and practices of Detective Scarcella, which manifested disregard to the rules, law and the truth, undermine our judicial system,” she added.

Hargrave was 17 when he was convicted of killing an off-duty prison guard in 1991. Now 40, he walked out of New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn surrounded by his family and friends.

Judge Simpson found that the only evidence presented at trial – the eyewitness testimony of another off-duty guard – stemmed from a photo array and lineup that Scarcella had arranged. She said fingerprints recovered from the crime scene did not match either Hargrave or his co-defendant, and there was no ballistic evidence. Blood evidence in the case had been lost, precluding DNA tests.

In addition to David Ranta, wrongful convictions based on Scarcella’s improper tactics included Robert Hill, who was released in May 2014 after 27 years in prison, and Roger Logan, who served 17 years before he was cleared and freed in June 2014.

Three prisoners were released on parole prior to being cleared of their charges: Alvena Jennette, who served 20 years before he was paroled in 2007; Derrick Hamilton, paroled in 2011 after serving over 20 years and exonerated in January 2015; and Carlos Davis, who served eight years prior to his parole in 1997.

One prisoner – Darryl Austin – died in prison in 2000 after 13 years behind bars, only to be posthumously cleared in May 2014.

Jennette, Hill and Austin’s estate agreed to accept $17 million from the City of New York in January 2015 to settle their wrongful conviction claims.

On June 8, 2015, Shabaka Shakur joined the ranks of prisoners wrongfully convicted by Scarcella’s malfeasance to be freed from prison. State Supreme Court Justice Desmond A. Green ordered a new trial, but DA Thompson announced he would not pursue the case, concluding that the death of the state’s main eyewitness and the investigation into Scarcella meant his office’s ability to retry Shakur had been “compromised.”

Scarcella had testified at trial that Shakur confessed. But Shakur, 50, maintained during his 27 years in prison that he never made such a confession. Scarcella could not produce any handwritten notes to back up the typewritten confession, which Shakur had not signed.

Among the more controversial cases involving Scarcella was that of Sundhe Moses, who had been convicted of killing 4-year-old Shamone Johnson, gunned down at a Brownsville, New York playground by a group of men who opened fire. Moses had supposedly confessed to the murder, but during his 1997 trial he claimed that a detective wrote the confession while Scarcella beat and choked him to force him to sign it.

At his first hearing before the New York State Board of Parole in 2011, Moses accepted responsibility for the crime and apologized. But when news of the Scarcella investigation broke, Moses sought the help of 26-year-old attorney Leah M. Busby, who tracked down Sharron Ivory, the victim’s cousin and a key witness to the playground shooting.

Ivory, who was serving time for an unrelated homicide, recanted his testimony, telling Busby, and then investigators from the district attorney’s office, that detectives had coached him on who to identify and told him to alter his account of the killing to fit the information that police fed him, such as the type of gun that was used.

“I sent in a notarized affidavit with an apology to this man for lying on him and helping a dirty cop taking this man’s life from him,” Ivory wrote to the Board of Parole. Busby also sent the Board an affidavit from one of the participants in the crime who was acquitted, professing Moses’ innocence. Moses was paroled on October 31, 2013.

Lance Ogiste, the prosecutor who had tried the case, opposed his release.

“While this conviction is in fact under review, there is no reason to grant the inmate’s present application for parole,” Ogiste remarked. “It should be noted that the detective who the inmate claims coerced his confession was not one of the detectives to whom the confession was made.”

“Saying ‘I’m not going to admit to something I did not do’ and tell the truth is the glamorous thing and the moral thing, because you want to believe the truth will prevail,” said Moses. “But what’s going to get you home? I wrestled with that so bad.”

“I was so happy when I talked to [Moses], and when I talked to his mother is when I started to cry,” Busby stated. “She has been praying for this for a long, long time. This has just killed her.”

“I’m forgiving, but I’m also angry,” Moses said the day after he was released on parole. “I lost a lot of time in prison.” He has since asked a court to throw out his conviction.

Ex-detective Scarcella has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, most recently during an October 2015 court hearing in the case of John D. Bunn, the co-defendant of exoneree Rosean Hargrave. At the hearing, Scarcella was unable to explain why Bunn, who served 16 years in prison, had initially been arrested.

Sources: The New York Times,,,,, New York Post


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