On January 12, 2015, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer announced the $17 million settlement of wrongful conviction claims brought by three half-brothers who were convicted of murder and spent a combined total of 60 years in prison.
The homicide detective in all three cases was Louis Scarcella, now retired. Scarcella's investigative tactics are being questioned and the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office is examining 130 convictions, mostly from the 1980’s. Scarcella was the key investigator in 70 of them.
"The 1980's were a difficult time in our city's history," said Stringer. "In a certain way, we are sort of unearthing the tangled history of that time period in our court system today."
Scarcella took over an unsolved 1985 homicide case in 1987. He used crack addict Teresa Gomez to name Austin and Jennette as the killers in court. They were convicted. He then used Gomez to testify against Hill in two other murder cases in separate trials. He was acquitted of one, but convicted of the other.
Even though Gomez's testimony contradicted that of other witnesses and the physical evidence, Scarcella claimed he did no wrong. It is hard to believe that she witnessed the three murders without even taking into account the fact that she testified to witnessing three other killings in various Scarcella homicide cases.
Hill, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, served 27 years in prison and will receive $7.15 million. Alvena Jennette was granted parole in 2007, after about 20 years in prison, and will receive $6 million. Darryl Austin died in prison in 2000, after 13 years of incarceration. The mother of all three, Louise Austin, will receive $3.85 on behalf of his estate.
These are the third, fourth and fifth major civil rights cases settled by Stringer since he took office in 2014. Previously, the comptroller settled minor claims, such as slip-and-fall suits, and left major litigation to the city's Law Department. Stringer believes his policy of early settlements is better for the city fiscally and better for the claimants. Law Department spokesman Nicholas Paolucci said such settlements were completely within the comptroller's authority. "Particularly in a case in which a district attorney has made an independent assessment that a criminal conviction should be vacated, an early resolution can be prudent and fair."
Attorney Pierre Sussman, who represents the brothers, said the early resolution was in everyone's best interests and avoids years of litigation.
In February 2014, Stringer settled a wrongful conviction claim by David Banta, who spent 23 years in prison, for $6.4 million. In October 2014, he agreed to a $2.25 million settlement for the family of a homeless veteran who died in an overheated cell at Rikers Island jail.
Sussman said the settlements "should not be seen as any level of forgiveness or resolution for Scarcella," from his clients. He noted that they have also filed claims against the state which have not yet been resolved.
Sources: www.nytimes.com, comptroller.nyc.gov
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