Back in 1991, David Ranta was convicted of the 1990 murder of Brooklyn rabbi and Holocaust survivor Chaskel Werzberger. However, in March, Ranta was exonerated and freed due to a staggering number of irregularities on the part of the NYPD. The most ghastly of them? One of the people who identified Ranta in a police lineup came forward to say he'd been told to pick Ranta by an NYPD detective.
That detective's name? Louis Scarcella. Well, after finding out about several other red flags in Scarcella's file, Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes announced he is reviewing some 50 of Scarcella's cases.
The development comes after The New York Times examined a dozen cases involving Mr. Scarcella and found disturbing patterns, including the detective’s reliance on the same eyewitness, a crack-addicted prostitute, for multiple murder prosecutions and his delivery of confessions from suspects who later said they had told him nothing. At the same time, defense lawyers, inmates and prisoner advocacy organizations have contacted the district attorney’s office to share their own suspicions about Mr. Scarcella.When Hynes' team conducted an initial review of Scarcella's file, they were particularly concerned about cases in which he used Teresa Gomez, a Trinidad-born prostitute who died several years ago in a hit-and-run accident, as a witness. She testified twice against the same man, Robert Hill, in two separate cases. Hill was convicted in the second trial, even though Gomez' testimony was laden with contradictions. She even admitted lying under oath in the first trial. Hill is still in prison today, and believes Scarcella coached Gomez' testimony somehow.
The review by the office of District Attorney Charles J. Hynes will give special scrutiny to those cases that appear weakest — because they rely on either a single eyewitness or confession, officials said. The staff will re-interview available witnesses, and study any new evidence. If they feel a conviction was unjust, prosecutors could seek for it to be dismissed.
“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 few months later, Gomez was on the stand again--this time at the trial of Hill's stepbrothers. Even though her testimony contradicted the statements of other eyewitnesses, the two men were still convicted. The Legal Aid Society wants to review homicide appeals from the late 1980s to see how many mention her.
A cursory look at Scarcella's cases reveals a disturbing pattern--witnesses and suspects claiming that Scarcella either coached their testimony or fabricated confessions. For instance, Shabeka Shakur, who is serving 40 years to life for double murder, claims that he was convicted based on a statement that Scarcella said he took from him, even though Scarcella's notes turned up missing. Derrick Hamilton spent 20 years in prison for a 1991 murder, and the only witness who testified against him now says Scarcella coached her testimony. And in 1992, Ronald Poindexter was convicted based on the testimony of a girl who told Poindexter's attorney Scarcella had threatened retaliation against her unless she falsely implicated Poindexter.
During his tenure, Scarcella gained a reputation as a detective who didn't play by the rules. For instance, in a 1987 murder trial, Scarcella was dressed down by the presiding judge for showing witnesses a picture of only one suspect, then allowing them to mingle together while identifying him. Scarcella himself told Dr. Phil in 2007 that he doesn't think there are any rules when dealing with murder suspects. He said bluntly, "The bad guys don’t play by the rules when they kill Ma and Pop, shoot them in the head, ruin the lives of their family. I don’t play by the rules." Um, Louis? Those rules are there because like it or not, those bad guys have rights too.