Over the past year, former NYPD homicide detective Louis Scarcella has become the poster boy for the sketchy police work that led to numerous wrongful convictions in the ’80s and ’90s. His alleged shady methods are tied to at least four recent exonerations, and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office is currently reviewing more than 50 of his investigations that resulted in convictions.
Scarcella did not work on the case of Jabbar Collins, who spent 16 years in prison for murder before a judge vacated his conviction in 2010. He then sued the city for $150 million, on the grounds that prosecutorial misconduct led to his wrongful conviction. But on Tuesday, a federal judge in Brooklyn ruled that Collins’s lawyers can call in Scarcella for a deposition even though he was not involved in the investigation. Scarcella, Judge Robert Levy concluded, would have valuable insight on “practices tolerated by the Brooklyn DA’s office and the NYPD, which jeopardized a defendant’s right to a fair trial.”
That doesn’t mean we’ll hear any of that insight. Former Assistant District Attorney Michael Vecchione was deposed in Collins’s case too. He’d faced his own accusations of dirty tricks, like turning a blind eye to proof of innocence, intimidating witnesses, and hiding evidence from defense attorneys. Under oath, Vecchione pleaded memory loss, answering “I don’t recall” 324 times, by Collins’s lawyer’s count.
Still, he couldn’t evade all culpability for his office. He said that some documents that were sworn, signed, and notarized in his name, were actually signed by someone else. The notary public would be criminally liable under this circumstance. Vecchione said that did not know who signed them.
Former Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes was also deposed. He claimed that he did not believe that Collins was innocent of killing Abraham Pollack in a 1994 robbery. This was a surprising admission. Just four months earlier, Hynes had told the New York Times, “We believe he did it.” In his testimony, Hynes laid the blame for the wrongful conviction on “someone involved in that case” who, he said, failed to inform Collins’s defense team that a main eye witness had recanted.*
Collins’s lawsuit argues that the misconduct in his case reflected the culture at the DA’s office at the time. Prosecutors work closely with detectives in homicide cases with both sides interviewing witnesses and reviewing evidence together. Scarcella’s pattern of alleged misconduct, Collins argues, suggests that the DA’s office was directly complicit or willfully ignorant.
For instance, the same eye witness, a drug-addict named Teresa Gomez, testified in six unrelated murder cases that Scarcella investigated. In other cases, like that of Shabaka Shakur, Scarcella claimed that the defendant confessed to him but did not write it down on paper.
In Collins’s case, two eye witnesses had identified him as the killer. Later, both witnesses admitted that they had lied under pressure from prosecutors.
*Correction: a previous version of this post misstated who Hynes blamed for Collins’s wrongful conviction.