After mounting questions over police tactics and the legitimacy of convictions, in March of this year, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes announced his office’s Conviction Integrity Unit would conduct an investigation into whether Louis Scarcella, an ex-Brooklyn homicide detective, fabricated confessions and mishandled cases leading to wrongful convictions. The review is supposed to give special scrutiny to “weak cases” or cases that hinged on a small amount of evidence.
The DA has begun to focus on more than 40 cases that Scarcella investigated and perhaps resulted in wrongful convictions. According to a recent New York Times article, Scarcella’s credibility was in question long before this year because of reoccurring patterns of language in suspect’s confessions, but prosecutors continually dismissed these similarities and prosecuted his suspects without question. The prosecution backed Scarcella, who already has one wrongful conviction under his belt, initially when the accusations of his misconduct arose, but the acclaimed detective has since lost support.
“Our experience all around the city is that errors by police and errors by prosecutors go hand in hand and frequently become a toxic mixture,” said Steven Banks, the chief attorney for the Legal Aid Society, which represents many of the defendants whose cases are under review, “There are a series of circumstances that should have set off alarm bells both at the precinct and in the prosecutor’s office.”
Hynes supported the release of David Ranta, who spent 20 years in prison for the murder of a Rabbi in 1991, a crime he didn’t commit. Scarcella was the investigator. Even though Hynes vowed, “If any cases appeared to be the ‘same as Ranta,’ he would immediately move to have the convict released,” his steadfast support of justice wasn’t backed up by his office’s recent refusal to release any information, including names of those that could have been wrongfully convicted.
“People will look for blame,” said John O’Mara, who leads the Conviction Integrity Unit, “Our goal isn’t to look for blame. Our goal is to correct injustice.”
A state judge disagreed with the D.A.’s decision and recently ruled that he will inspect all the possible wrongful convictions caused by the tainted detective. This will be the first independent probe. New York Supreme Court Justice Desmond Green denied the motion by prosecutor’s to suppress Shabaka Shakur’s defense petition to gather evidence of Scarcella’s wrongdoing. He also ordered the prosecution to give him all the case files being reviewed, two at a time. If Justice Green finds anything that helps Shakur’s defense, he ruled he will discuss the documents with both sides before turning it over to the defense.
Shakur, 48, is serving 40 years to life for the 1988 murders of two drug dealers. His case is under review by the D.A. The prosecution, including the Appeals Bureau and the Conviction Integrity Unit, were reportedly visibly taken aback by Green’s decision. They said they would deliver the first set of boxes by the end of this week.
Hynes has been questioned by his critics about whether leading the investigation is a conflict of interest. His office has defended the work of his predecessor, Elizabeth Holtzman, who prosecuted most of Scarcella’s cases, during appeals, trying to keep those convicted by Scarcella’s work in prison. Hynes, who is seeking re-election this year, said Scarcella’s mistakes were not brought to his attention until 2012. It remains unclear how much prosecutors knew or participated in Scarcella’s sloppy work. The possibility remains that there are more suspects from Scarcella’s cases who are innocent.