The Brooklyn district attorney’s office will ask a judge to vacate the murder convictions of three half-brothers whose trials relied on the questionable practices of discredited homicide detective Louis Scarcella. The defendants, Alvena Jennette, Robert Hill, and Darryl Austin, will become the first people connected to the Louis Scarcella scandal, to be exonerated since investigations began into his cases in 2013. The office has been looking into 57 of his convictions.
Scarcella’s investigative work was also blamed in 2013 for the wrongful conviction of David Ranta who spent 23 years in prison. Scarcella was accused in that case of fabricating evidence, coercing witnesses, and failing to turn in exculpatory evidence. The most egregious of his actions seemed to be using Teresa Gomez, a drug addict, in 6 separate murder cases as a witness, including an acquittal and a dismissal.
Gomez, now deceased, often got details wrong and contradicted other witnesses. Gomez testified against Jennette, Hill, and Austin. The decision by the district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, to vacate the convictions came in advance of any defense motions. If the prosecutors’ request is granted, only one man, Mr. Hill, will actually gain his freedom. Hill has been in prison since 1988. Jennette, 50, was released on parole in 2007 and Austin died in prison in 2000 at the age of 37.
“The last time I saw my brother was at sentencing; the next time I seen him was in a casket,” Jennette said, “This is the thing that really, really troubles me: He could not be here to share this. He was always optimistic that we would get out some day and that a wrong would be righted.”
Austin will be cleared posthumously and his mother will stand up for him in court before Justice Neil Firetog of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, NY.
“This is a bittersweet result for a family devastated by the criminal justice system,” Pierre Sussman, a Bronx civil rights lawyer who represents the brothers said, “While Mr. Hill is gaining his freedom and his brother Alvena recovering his good name, their brother Darryl died alone in a jail cell. And all three brothers had to live through their respective decades in prison knowing that their mother was suffering for them on the outside.”
Scarcella, now retired, has denied all wrongdoing.
The murder of Ronnie Durant in 1985 went unsolved for two years until it was assigned to Louis Scarcella. He quickly produced Gomez as a witness who saw Jennette and Austin rob and kill the man. Prosecutors later found her testimony not credible. She described the scene as a Wild West shootout, but there was no physical evidence to line up with that.
In March, prosecutors revealed for the first time that the original detective on the case had two witnesses who said the two brothers did not take part in the murder. That exculpatory information was never shared with the defense. Not in 1988 before, during, or after the original trial. And not at any of the nine times over the next two decades during Jennette’s appeals.
“How was it possible that this woman testified in this many murder cases without nobody saying nothing?” said Mr. Jennette, who served 21 years for the 1985 murder.
The D.A.’s new Conviction Integrity Unit found no evidence that Gomez was incentivized. Prosecutors found no clear reason why she gave her testimony.
At a separate trial, Gomez testified that she saw Hill kill a man on a street corner in 1987. She said Hill shot the man and stuffed him in a taxi with the help of three others. Hill says he found the victim, Donald Manboardes, shot in the basement of his grandmother’s house, where friends often gathered. Afraid, he and his friends put him in a cab and asked the driver to take him to Kings County Hospital.
Thompson took office in January after defeating longtime D.A. Charles Hynes, who fought the brothers’ appeals vehemently, and was criticized heavily for his treatment of wrongful convictions. These exonerations bring Thompson’s record to 6 exonerations in just the 5 months he has been in office. The 3 brothers’ convictions were obtained under D.A. Elizabeth Holtzman, the predecessor to Hynes.
The D.A.’s office’s official statement said that the convictions were overturned because the trials were not fair, but that so much time had passed they couldn’t say whether the men are innocent or guilty. They will not be retried.
Thompson, who ran a campaign that promised to clean up the district attorney’s office, came in inheriting a list of 57 Scarcella cases and about two dozen non-Scarcella cases of potential wrongful convictions that needed to be reviewed. The unit has since added about 10 more, bringing the total of case reviews to 90.