After a murder defendant took the stand and accused a Brooklyn homicide detective, Louis Scarcella, of beating a false confession out of him, the detective had someone important vouch for his trustworthiness to the jury: the prosecutor.
"The defense wants you to accept that Detective Scarcella is going to come in here and throw away 24 years of his life, wants you to believe that Scarcella is going to risk his pension, his livelihood and his profession to obtain a confession," said Kyle C. Reeves, then a prosecutor with the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. "He’s going to risk all that? Very, very unlikely."
Despite the confident speech, by the time Mr. Reeves defended the detective in that 1997 murder trial there was already growing evidence available to prosecutors that Mr. Scarcella’s work was marred by persistent and troubling patterns.
In a 1983 hearing, a judge said that Mr. Scarcella had answered "I don’t remember" so many times on the stand that the defendant accused of attempted rape had more credibility than the detective. In the years that followed, at least six murder defendants claimed in their trials or appeals that the detective had developed their confessions himself, noting the customary video documenting the interrogation did not exist. And one witness had appeared in so many of his cases that even defendants in other cases cited her as proof that the detective was soliciting false testimony.
But prosecutors continued to pursue the cases Mr. Scarcella brought and continued to tell jurors and appeals judges to ignore any accusations of wrongdoing.
The Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, has ordered a review of nearly 40 cases investigated by Mr. Scarcella, who is now retired. The review came after Mr. Hynes’s office revealed six months ago that the detective’s flawed investigation had put an innocent man behind bars for two decades and news reports found further problems with his work.
An examination by The New York Times of some cases Mr. Scarcella handled indicates that prosecutors in the district attorney’s office itself either ignored warning signs in the detective’s work or made missteps of their own.
"Our experience all around the city is that errors by police and errors by prosecutors go hand in hand and frequently become a toxic mixture," said Steven Banks, the chief attorney for the Legal Aid Society, which represents many of the defendants whose cases are under review. "There are a series of circumstances that should have set off alarm bells both at the precinct and in the prosecutor’s office."
Mr. Scarcella declined to comment on Thursday, saying he had retained a lawyer.
In defending his cases, Mr. Scarcella has repeatedly cited the oversight of prosecutors. "If what I did was so bad, it shouldn’t have been brought to trial," he said in an interview in April.
The district attorney’s office has so far refused to release a full list of cases under review and declined to discuss particular ones. In addition, it is unclear what individual prosecutors knew about Mr. Scarcella and the accusations against him. But the potential problems seen in a sampling of cases in which Mr. Scarcella testified raises the prospect that innocent people may be serving life sentences for crimes they did not commit, or that guilty people whose cases were compromised could go free.
That 1997 murder case in which the prosecutor rose to defend Mr. Scarcella was emblematic of flaws in the detective’s cases: contradictory witnesses, disputed confessions and prosecutors willing to accept his findings and take them to trial.
Jabbar Washington, who is serving 25 years to life, was convicted of taking part in a home invasion in 1995 that left one person dead and two others seriously injured. The case against him was built around his own confession and the testimony of a woman who said she saw the crime, but there were reasons to be skeptical of both.
Mr. Washington claimed the detective had told him what to say and then beat him until he confessed. The district attorney’s office accepted the confession, which had been videotaped, even though it started with the same two sentences uttered by suspects Mr. Scarcella had interrogated in other cases. Mr. Reeves, who defended the detective’s honesty during his closing argument, declined to comment.
The lead witness told Mr. Scarcella she could identify the killer, who had worn a mask, but she was unable to do so at trial. In response to an appeal years later, an assistant district attorney, Marie-Claude P. Wrenn-Myers, acknowledged that the witness had been "equivocal and somewhat inarticulate."
"But," she added, "the jury could consider Detective Scarcella’s testimony in tandem with hers."
Critics, including political opponents, defense lawyers and inmates, have questioned the propriety of Mr. Hynes leading the investigation into his office’s work, particularly because most of the cases under review were prosecuted on his watch. (The district attorney’s office said 10 of the cases were closed under Elizabeth Holtzman, who was district attorney before Mr. Hynes took office in 1990, but his office defended them if they were appealed.)
The critics note that Mr. Hynes, 78, is seeking re-election and that Mr. Scarcella’s daughter works in the office as a prosecutor. In a brief interview, Mr. Hynes said that so far no glaring problems had been discovered in the review. He said the detective’s sloppy work was not brought to the office’s attention until a year ago, when it reopened the case that led to an exoneration. Even in that case, he found no reason to blame the prosecutors.
"I am not going to second-guess the assistants involved," Mr. Hynes said. "They are very good trial lawyers."
Glossing Over Actions
In March, Mr. Hynes announced that he would support the release of David Ranta, who had served two decades in prison for the 1990 murder of an Orthodox rabbi. The district attorney’s staff documented a series of problems with Mr. Scarcella’s work in the case, like covering up the steps he took investigating another suspect.
But in court records and public interviews Mr. Hynes and his staff glossed over questionable actions by prosecutors that included making unauthorized tape recordings, overlooking inconsistencies in the evidence and offering a generous deal to an informer even after he changed his stories.
Those in the office at the time recall significant pressure from Mr. Hynes to win a conviction. Mr. Hynes, who had recently been elected district attorney, represented the state at the arraignment and also appeared at the grand jury. (A spokesman said the district attorney initially had "no recollection" of being at either hearing, though he later said Mr. Hynes remembered attending the grand jury proceedings.)
A two-month investigation initially focused on another man who prosecutors now believe was the real killer. But when that suspect died, Mr. Scarcella switched his focus to Mr. Ranta.
Mr. Hynes assigned the case to two top prosecutors in the office: Suzanne M. Mondo, now a judge, and Barry M. Schreiber, now a private lawyer and campaign contributor to Mr. Hynes. They were handed a case built on the words of a prostitute, a drug addict, a rapist and a jailhouse informer who had been lavished with favors by Mr. Scarcella for weeks.
Prosecutors promised the informer — Alan Bloom, who was facing over 100 years in prison for a string of armed robberies — immunity from charges related to the murder and a sentence of as little as three and a third years for the robberies. They gave him the deal even though he had failed his first lie-detector test and initially named someone else as responsible for the murder.
Other problems were later discovered. Mr. Ranta’s confession included incorrect key details, like the color of the getaway car. A hair sample found in the vehicle was not a match for him, and years later, when investigators sought to test it against another suspect, it had been destroyed.
A witness was less than certain when he identified Mr. Ranta in a police lineup, saying "I think," but when the district attorney’s office made a transcript of the recording it edited out the hedge and did not turn over the audio tape until the close of trial. Two decades later, that witness recanted and said that just before entering the lineup room, where a prosecutor was present, a police officer told him whom to pick. That admission forced Mr. Hynes’s office to reopen the case.
That is when investigators found a previously unknown tape recording made by an informer at the request of prosecutors but never turned over to the defense. On it, an informer chatted on the phone with Mr. Ranta, who called from jail to profess his innocence and mention other witnesses who could have helped his case. Supervisors at the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit were angered by the discovery of the tape because they felt it was an unauthorized recording because Mr. Ranta already had counsel, a lawyer familiar with the case said.
Mr. Schreiber, who did not respond to requests for comment, told his former colleagues that he did not recall making the recording, court records show. The trial lawyer, Michael F. Baum, the first to bring the problems with the case to the office’s attention, said, "The fact is, there were red flags all over this case."
A Long-Evident Pattern
Defense lawyers called them "magical confessions" — the surprising admissions of guilt that Mr. Scarcella was able to quickly elicit from stubborn suspects. While the district attorney’s office is now reviewing questions about how he managed to get those confessions, the pattern of his questionable tactics was evident for years.
Sundhe Moses, who was accused of killing a 4-year-old girl struck by a stray bullet, took the stand in his own defense in 1997 to say that he signed a confession only because the detective had knocked him around. Mr. Moses says he told the prosecutor that the detective had abused him and that the confession was fiction.
"He didn’t want to hear it," Mr. Moses said by phone from prison, where he is serving 16 years to life.
In some cases, appeal records show inmates claimed that when they confessed to Mr. Scarcella, the details they allegedly gave did not even match the evidence, that they had been tricked or forced to make untrue statements, or that they had been asked to sign a blank piece of paper only to have the supposed confession written on it later. In some cases, when the prosecutor arrived to videotape a confession, the suspect denied telling Mr. Scarcella he had committed the crime.
Hector Lopez, who was convicted of arson and murder in 1995 and has been writing letters from prison detailing evidence he says shows his confession was fabricated, said it was odd that prosecutors had turned on Mr. Scarcella.
"They supported him all those years," Mr. Lopez said. "Now that he is retired they are throwing him under the bus? If he was still working, they’d be covering it up."
One of Mr. Scarcella’s former sergeants, Dennis Singleton, said that years before he retired in 1999, some detectives grew skeptical of the investigator’s cocky "superstar" image and refused to work with him. But if Mr. Scarcella took shortcuts, Mr. Singleton felt that the district attorney’s office should share the blame.
Eventually a similar skepticism emerged in corners of the district attorney’s office. One current top prosecutor said that even those who respected the detective cooled toward him after 1992, when video taken by a defense investigator showed Mr. Scarcella removing informers from jail for unauthorized outings. Some prosecutors began to review the detective’s work more thoroughly, the lawyer recalled.
But even some of those who were suspicious of Mr. Scarcella acknowledged that they mostly kept their concerns to themselves, saying that his ability to clear cases had made him popular with the bosses.
"Some prosecutors were leery; they didn’t trust it," said one former investigator, who did not want to be identified publicly while criticizing his former supervisors. "He was one of the best detectives in the city. He’s turning over all these cases, and the bosses loved him. You’re going to go to the boss and say, ‘This doesn’t look right’?’"
Peter J. Tartaglia, a former police lieutenant who worked with Mr. Scarcella, had little patience for the second-guessing of the detective’s work.
"Every single one of those cases were scrutinized by high up," Mr. Tartaglia said. "They were scrutinized by the bureau chief of homicide. Do you know who the bureau chief of homicide had coffee with every day? Charlie Hynes. If there was any doubt any bureau chief had, Charlie Hynes heard that question and the answer."
Some prosecutors have emerged to defend Mr. Scarcella. They say what may now seem like red flags to others were just a reality of working in law enforcement, particularly in that era.
Douglas M. Nadjari, a former assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case against Mr. Lopez and is convinced of his guilt, said that dealing with defendants who denied confessing did not necessarily mean the admission was fake. He said Mr. Scarcella simply had a gift for getting suspects to open up and they sometimes regretted doing so.
"Lou would take the confession and say, ‘He’s ready to talk,’ " Mr. Nadjari said. "When I got there with the video recorder, sometimes they clammed up. It’s a sign they thought it over a second time."
Jeffrey I. Ginsberg, a former assistant district attorney who also prosecuted two of the convictions under review, said the cases might look bad in retrospect, but they needed to be considered in the context of the 1980s and ’90s, when the crack epidemic was helping fuel a crime wave.
"The witnesses often came in orange jumpsuits," said Mr. Ginsberg, referring to the outfit worn by inmates. "I was not afraid to go to trial on a weak case. I was not afraid to lose. I was not lying and cheating to get a conviction."
One witness who came from jail was Rayquan Shabazz, a burglar with a knack for getting caught. He kept the telephone number of Kenneth M. Taub, the chief of the Brooklyn district attorney’s homicide unit, tucked in his Bible to have it handy whenever he was arrested.
With a budding career as a jailhouse informer, Mr. Shabazz reached out to Mr. Taub in 1996, promising information that would help win a conviction in a gruesome murder.
Harry Kaufman, a subway token booth clerk, was working an overnight shift at the Kingston-Throop subway station when a group of teenagers approached his booth brandishing a soda bottle filled with gasoline. One of the teenagers squirted the gasoline into the coin slot; another dropped a match. The blast was heard a block away.
Mr. Scarcella, the investigator on the case, quickly zeroed in on Thomas Malik. The case seemed strong: the other teenagers pointed to him as the one who lighted the match, and Mr. Malik confessed on video. But there were problems for the prosecutors because testimony from co-defendants was inadmissible in court and Mr. Malik claimed he confessed only after Mr. Scarcella slammed his head into a locker.
Enter Mr. Shabazz. He told the jury that he had heard Mr. Malik not only admit to the crime, but also plot to have his co-defendants killed as well.
Mr. Malik was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years to life. Mr. Shabazz, who had previously testified for prosecutors in both Brooklyn and Queens, told the jury that Mr. Taub helped get his sentence reduced.
Being a jailhouse mole was so rewarding that Mr. Shabazz kept at it, even as it became increasingly clear that many of his tips were false.
Six years after Mr. Malik’s conviction, law enforcement agencies had wasted so many resources investigating Mr. Shabazz’s tips that the inmate was criminally charged and, after he pleaded guilty to false reporting, was barred from contacting law enforcement as long as he was in state custody.
"This defendant has persistently made up false reports about the planned assassinations of a judge, prosecutors, correction and police personnel and witnesses in an attempt to curry favor with law enforcement and obtain consideration," Justice Carol Berkman of State Supreme Court in Manhattan wrote in 2003. "This defendant poses a very significant threat to the integrity of the criminal justice process."
Mr. Malik’s lawyer, Ronald L. Kuby, who is seeking to have his conviction overturned, said: "Using a man like Rayquan Shabazz to be a roving informer on an intermittent basis is prosecutorial misconduct. It’s part of institutional willful blindness."
The files on the nearly 40 cases under review, including Mr. Malik’s, have been distributed to lawyers throughout the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which could lead them to confront errors and oversights made by current leaders in the office.
District Attorney Hynes, known for standing by longtime lieutenants even when they face accusations of misconduct, also convened a civilian panel to examine his office’s investigation of the Scarcella cases and to make recommendations. That panel includes several of his friends and donors.
The review has complicated Mr. Hynes’s bid to be elected for a seventh term. His opponent in the Democratic primary next week, Kenneth P. Thompson, 47, a private lawyer and former federal prosecutor, has criticized how the investigation has been conducted and questioned whether the problems are more far-reaching.
Mr. Hynes said that if any cases appeared to be the "same as Ranta" — which led to the initial exoneration — he would immediately move to have the convict released. "We have not gotten to a point where we have found anything that appears to be problematic," he said.