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On Wednesday, retired Brooklyn Detective Louis Scarcella testified in court. It was an event, highly anticipated and filled with reporters. Last year, then-Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes announced that his office would review every conviction that involved Scarcella. At a time when wrongful convictions have become the headline story of America’s criminal justice system, no other detective has faced such scrutiny. And so in the months since, Scarcella emerged as the face of wrongful convictions. Wednesday was the first time, since Hynes’s announcement, that Scarcella has had to answer questions about his police work under oath.
It will not be the last time, though. Over the coming weeks and months and perhaps years, Scarcella will be called to the witness stand for civil lawsuits of exonerated men and for criminal appeals cases of convicted men. He might even testify in cases he had nothing to do with: Earlier this year, a judge ruled that Scarcella could be subpoenaed in the wrongful-imprisonment civil suit of Jabbar Collins to answer questions about police misconduct in general, even though Scarcella did not investigate that case. He never had to answer questions in that one. The city settled with Collins for $10 million before the suit went to trial.
The vacated convictions from crack-era homicide cases continue to roll out of Brooklyn. Brooklyn D.A. Ken Thompson has dismissed seven convictions this year alone. And the city, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, has showed a willingness to end wrongful-conviction lawsuits with big payouts, including the $1 million-for-every-year-locked-up settlement with the Central Park Five. There will be more lawsuits, there will be more subpoenas.
That doesn’t mean there will be more answers.
Those in the courtroom on Wednesday certainly didn’t learn much new information from Scarcella’s hour-long testimony. The matter at hand concerned the appeal of Rosean Hargrave, who was convicted of a Crown Heights murder in 1991. Scarcella’s partner, Steve Chmil, worked on that case. Scarcella testified that he played a very minor role in that investigation. A New York Times investigation in 2013 revealed “troubling aspects” in the case. The conviction was based solely on an eyewitness identification: One of the two victims survived the shooting and fingered Hargrave and his co-defendant, John Dwayne Bunn. That witness did not pick them out of a photo book, but from a handful of photos the detectives showed him. There was no physical evidence tying Hargrave and Bunn to the murder scene.
But more than two decades have passed, and when Hargrave’s lawyer Pierre Sussmen challenged Scarcella about the details of the investigation, Scarcella pleaded forgetfulness. As the Times reported, Scarcella answered a version of “I don’t recall” more than 20 times.
Which might bring to mind the infamous deposition of former prosecutor Michael Vecchione in the Jabbar Collins case. Vecchione answered “I don’t recall” more than 300 times.
Scarcella’s attorneys challenge that comparison. “Scarcella played virtually no role in the case,” attorneys Joel Cohen and Alan Abramson said in a statement responding to this post. “Drawing a parallel between him and former A.D.A. Michael Vecchione, who had a remarkable memory loss about a case he prosecuted, is simply unfair. Moreover, Scarcella was questioned about events that Hargrave’s attorney was well aware he played no part in, which suggests he deliberately sought to elicit answers of ‘I don’t recall.’ ”
Perhaps Scarcella really didn’t remember the details. He’s worked hundreds of homicide cases. It’s plausible enough that you can give him the benefit of the doubt if you wanted. To a lot of people, though, Scarcella long ago lost the benefit of the doubt.
Derrick Hamilton was in the courtroom during Scarcella’s testimony. He wore a hat that read, “Victims of Detective Scarcella.” Hamilton believed that Scarcella was lying when Scarcella said that he did not threaten the witness who identified Hamilton as the shooter in a 1991 Bed-Stuy homicide. And since he was paroled in 2011, Hamilton has stood as one of the most outspoken critics of Scarcella.
As the Daily News reported, when Hamilton saw Scarcella in the hallway outside the courtroom, he said, “Why did you do it? You should go to jail.”
Scarcella has denied wrongdoing at every opportunity. “I’ve never framed anyone in my life,” he has said more than once. For those like Hamilton, there must be a small sense of justice in seeing Scarcella answer for his alleged misconduct before a judge and an adversarial lawyer and a room full of spectators — in seeing the detective facing his accusations in the public spotlight the way Hamilton and others once had to.
But beneath the specific questions about Scarcella’s specific cases, there is the fundamental question of systematic accountability. As Scarcella himself testified, his witnesses and evidence had to pass before many eyes prior to reaching a jury.
“There’s no Scarcella if there’s no Hynes, and there’s no Hynes or Scarcella if there are no judges who allow tainted evidence to go before jury after jury after jury,” says Lonnie Soury, whose public-relations firm represents a number of wrongfully convicted men. “He’s a symptom of a greater disease.”
To those who are convinced of Louis Scarcella’s guilt, a larger question lingers: Was he an outlier, or simply the only one to get caught?
Updated 12:28 p.m. Scarcella’s attorneys, Joel Cohen and Alan Abramson, offered the following statement on the testimony:
We comment on this article in an effort to clarify a number of points. Detective Scarcella was not the Detective assigned to this case. It was assigned to the late John Barba of the 77th Precinct. Detective Steven Chmil, Scarcella’s partner was assigned to assist. As noted in the District Attorney s papers in opposition to the present motion filed by Mr. Hargrave’s attorney, Scarcella played virtually no role in the case. Other than being present at Hargrave’s arrest he did nothing of substance. It is no surprise that he has little memory of the events surrounding the case.
For instance, he did NOT compile the photo spread from which Mr. Crosson identified Mr. Hargrave as one of the shooters, nor did he conduct the line-up. Those were done by Detectives Chmil and Barba. That this is evident from the original hearing and trial record didn’t prevent Mr. Sussman from asking Scarcella misleading questions which deliberately misstated the facts which Sussman well knew to be different from those facts his questions suggested. Drawing a parallel between him and former ADA Michael Vecchione who had a remarkable memory loss about a case he prosecuted is simply unfair. Moreover Scarcella was questioned about events that Hargrave’s attorney was well aware he played no part in, which suggests he deliberately sought to elicit answers of “I don’t recall.”
Finally, District Attorney Kenneth Thompson made very clear that none of the vacated convictions were exonerations, nor has any judge or jury found that any action taken by Detective Scarcella to have led to the conviction of an innocent person. He played no part in the case of Jabbar Collins, who actually WAS exonerated, who was prosecuted by Mr. Vecchione. Unlike Scarcella, Vecchione’s conduct was sharply criticized by two Federal judges who reviewed the Collins case, which truly was a miscarriage of justice.