When the Villain Has a Badge
In the 1980s and 1990s, Louis Scarcella was the best homicide detective in New York City. In an era demanding law enforcement to be tough on crime, Scarcella, well-dressed and charismatic, made a name for himself by solving some of the most high-profile murders. Scarcella charmed witnesses and juries and easily secured confessions and convictions. Scarcella was said to be able to get things the other detectives couldn’t. In 1990, one of these investigations led Scarcella to David Ranta, who was convicted for shooting holocaust survivor and Hasidic rabbi, Chaskel Werzberger—Mr. Ranta got a life sentence. At the time, no one stopped to consider whether his investigations were too good to be true. After all, the Brooklyn DA’s office needed to demonstrate they were doing something about crime and Scarcella was serving them murderer after murderer on a shiny silver platter. With each conviction, the DA was one step closer to appeasing the public panic brought about by the crack epidemic plaguing the streets of New York.
Twenty years later, public attitude has somewhat shifted as there has been some focus on wrongful convictions and a push to reform the criminal justice system. In response, in 2011, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office under Charles Hynes established its “Conviction Integrity Unit” (CIU) to review potentially problematic cases. Many questions had surfaced surrounding several of Scarcella’s cases and the DA’s office announced it would review over fifty cases in which Scarcella played a chief role in the conviction. So far, seven of these convictions have been overturned. Scarcella manipulated the investigations to fit his narrative and send his suspects to prison, guilty or not.
In 2013, David Ranta, after 23 years in prison, became the first of the Scarcella defendants freed. The Brooklyn DA’s office concluded that Scarcella’s investigation did not add up, that Ranta did not belong behind bars, and asked a judge to release him. Multiple convictions were then overturned. As it turned out, Scarcella coerced or falsified confessions, and bribed or blackmailed witnesses to lie on the stand. Some of these defendants said Scarcella beat them until they signed a confession, others that he manufactured it altogether. Witnesses reported they were threatened with perjury, jail, and even losing their children, if they did not say what Scarcella told them to say. Notably, Scarcella also relied on the testimony of one crack-riddled prostitute, Teresa Gomez, as his star witness in at least fourdifferent murder trials.
Mr. Ranta was convicted despite a lack of physical evidence connecting him to the murder; his conviction stemmed instead from witness accounts and a confession, all of which since appear to have been coerced or plainly falsified by Scarcella. An eyewitness testified that he was told by a detective—Scarcella was the lead detective on the case—to pick the man with “the big nose” out of a lineup, with Ranta being the only one fitting that description. Two other witnesses admitted to explicitly lying in exchange for clemency in their own unrelated cases, and said that Scarcella had even accommodated them by having them leave jail to smoke crack and have sex with prostitutes in exchange for their testimony. Mr. Ranta himself steadfastly maintained that Scarcella fabricated his confession.
Derrick Hamilton, another Scarcella releasee, was convicted for murdering Nathaniel Cash in Brooklyn despite 8 witnesses placing Hamilton in Connecticut at the time. The statement of Cash’s girlfriend identifying Hamilton as the killer cinched the DA & Scarcella’s case against him. She tried to recant, but was threatened with perjury and jail. Mr. Hamilton was sentenced twenty-five to life. Unlike Mr. Ranta, Mr. Hamilton already had a criminal record and believed that Scarcella pinned him for this murder, despite knowing he was innocent, because Scarcella didn’t think he did enough time the first time around.
The incredible testimony of prostitute Teresa Gomez led to the vacating of Robert Hill’s conviction after he was imprisoned for 27 years. The DA also vacated the convictions of Hill’s half-brothers, Alvena Jennete and Darryl Austin. Sadly, Mr. Austin died in prison in 2000 at the age of 37 after serving more than 13 years. In 2014, the DA described Gomez to the judge as “hopelessly addicted to drugs, criminal in her conduct for the most part, increasingly erratic in terms of her accounts,” a description not far off from how she was described at the original trials. Yet, the DA and Scarcella pimped the prostitute Gomez before juries over and over again, leading to multiple wrongful convictions.
Last year, Justice ShawnDya L. Simpson of the New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn ordered a new trial and subsequently vacated the conviction for John Dwanye Bunn, imprisoned for murdering an off-duty correction officer in 1991. Bunn was fourteen at the time. The year previously, she released Mr. Bunn’s co-defendant, Rosean Hargrave, citing specifically the shoddy investigation led by Scarcella and his partner, Detective Stephen Chmil. In her decision reversing Bunn’s conviction, she wrote that Scarcella’s “malfeasance in fabricating false identification evidence gravely undermines the evidence that convicted the defendants in this case.”
The presumption of innocence and the prosecutorial burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt are fundamental to our criminal justice system. Yet, as we see in the wake of destruction left by the Brooklyn DA and Scarcella, these foundations were neglected. The evidence in any one of these cases wasn’t sufficient for the convictions, and that is disregarding the fact that most, if not all, of this purported evidence has since been revealed as fraudulent. The Scarcella defendants should never have been imprisoned. As much as the blame for this can be attributed to Scarcella’s dirty tactics, so should it be attributed to the system that allowed these tactics to flourish. An injustice of this magnitude can hardly be accredited entirely to one man’s misconduct.
We should recognize and condemn the wrongdoings of Louis Scarcella, but we are remiss if we turn a blind eye to the fact that there were many in place who should have identified problems and prevented this injustice before anyone was sent to prison. If prosecutors and cops should learn anything from Scarcella, it’s that pursuing convictions isn’t synonymous with pursuing justice.