An Ex-Detective’s Overturned Murder Cases Have Cost New York $110 Million

A single New York City police detective accused of trying to close murder cases by concocting false witness testimony and coercing confessions has cost taxpayers $110 million in settlements to more than a dozen people whose convictions were overturned after some had spent decades in prison.

People investigated by the former detective, Louis N. Scarcella, have already received a total of $73.1 million in settlements from New York City and another $36.9 million from the state, according to the city and state comptroller offices. The payouts are expected to rise by tens of millions more, because the men cleared last year of burning a subway token clerk alive in 1995 have filed claims against the state.

The $110 million went to 14 different defendants, including a woman who died a few years after her release, a man who was just 14 when he was arrested on murder charges and a man whose settlement went to his mother because he died in prison at age 37. One man, let out of prison after 23 years, had a severe heart attack just two days later.

Mr. Scarcella has not been charged with any crimes. But no other New York Police Department officer has ever come close to costing taxpayers as much, lawyers involved in the cases say. Experts in wrongful convictions say the sum is “staggering,” and puts Mr. Scarcella in the company of just a handful of other police officers in Chicago and Philadelphia accused of rigging dozens of cases, costing millions.

In New York, a city with 36,000 police officers, records show that Mr. Scarcella’s cases represent about 15 percent of the nearly $500 million the city spent on reversed convictions between 2014 and 2022. The city often settles out of court to avoid the potential of a bigger payout at trial.

“While many police officers in New York City history have made excessive amounts of overtime, no police officer in the history of New York and quite possibly the history of policing has cost taxpayers over $100 million for his misconduct,” said Ronald Kuby, a civil rights lawyer who has won settlements in three Scarcella cases. “And there’s more to come.”

Mr. Scarcella, now 72, was a detective in the Brooklyn North homicide squad in the 1980s and ’90s, when the crack epidemic sent the city’s homicide rate soaring. A cigar-smoking legend known as “the closer,” Mr. Scarcella, who retired in 1999, had a reputation for solving murder cases that had stymied his colleagues. By his own count, he led at least 175 cases and helped with 175 more.

A Navy veteran who moonlighted as a Coney Island carnival barker, he joined the police force in 1973, following in his father’s footsteps. His confidence and swagger landed him on “Dr. Phil,” where he boasted about his ability to extract confessions from suspects. But defense lawyers and even some colleagues wondered about his methods.

For years, defense lawyers, including Mr. Kuby, accused him of coaching witnesses, sometimes under threat, and not just coercing false confessions but inventing them. Confessions that defendants in different cases later denied offering sometimes contained identical language, The New York Times found.

Police and court records documented how witnesses changed their accounts after Mr. Scarcella met with them.

But Mr. Scarcella’s work did not come under fire publicly until 2013, after a witness came forward to say a detective told him which suspect to pick out of a police lineup for the 1990 murder of a Brooklyn rabbi. By then, that suspect, David Ranta, had already served more than 20 years in prison for the murder. The unnamed detective was widely assumed to be Mr. Scarcella, who conducted the lineup. As the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office reviewed the case, every aspect unraveled.

David Ranta spent 23 years in prison for the murder of a Brooklyn rabbi that Mr. Scarcella investigated. Mr. Ranta was released in 2013.Credit…Michael Appleton for The New York Times

The district attorney’s investigation found that Mr. Scarcella and his partner Stephen W. Chmil let violent criminals out of jail to smoke crack cocaine and visit prostitutes in exchange for incriminating Mr. Ranta. More witnesses recanted, and evidence showed that Mr. Scarcella had investigated another suspect — who bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Ranta — but had failed to submit any paperwork about it.

After Mr. Ranta’s release in March 2013, an investigation by The Times showed that Mr. Scarcella had repeatedly turned to a particular woman — who was addicted to crack cocaine — to testify in his murder cases. Only then did the district attorney’s office agree to review all of the detective’s homicide cases in which he testified and there was a guilty verdict. Dozens of prisoners started filing motions for their cases to be overturned.

(Mr. Ranta was the first to receive a settlement: $6.4 million from the city and another $2 million from the state.)

Mr. Scarcella and his lawyers did not respond to messages seeking comment. In previous interviews and in court, Mr. Scarcella has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. He has said that Charles J. Hynes, Brooklyn’s former top prosecutor, agreed in 2013 to review Mr. Scarcella’s cases only because he was up for re-election and under intense pressure. Mr. Hynes lost the election by a huge margin and died in 2019 at age 83.

“I couldn’t sit with my family the past 30, 40 years if I had hurt an individual,” Mr. Scarcella said in a 2013 interview with The Times. “I never fudged a lineup in my life. I never, ever took a false confession.”

Eighteen people whose convictions were tied to the detective’s work have had their convictions overturned after serving a total of 268 years in prison, according to the National Exonerations Registry.

To date, cases tied to Mr. Scarcella account for about a third of the three dozen cases the Brooklyn district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit has agreed to vacate, and another handful of his cases have been overturned by judges, said Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.

Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the city Law Department, said the settlements, which come from taxpayers, offered a measure of justice.

“The city has been burdened with costly settlements stemming from the work this detective conducted in the 1980s and 1990s,” Mr. Paolucci said. “The settlements provide a measure of justice to those who were wrongfully convicted and also resolve cases in the best interest of the city.”

Legal experts said that while the settlements are important and help get people’s lives back on track, they do nothing to prevent further misconduct.

“I actually think it’s really problematic, because although it helps bring a measure of justice to the wrongfully convicted person who has been harmed by the system, it doesn’t do anything for accountability, because the taxpayers are the ones who are bearing the impact,” said Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation for the Innocence Project, who was not involved in the Scarcella cases. Mr. Scarcella still collects his pension.

Vanessa Gathers received nearly $4 million after serving 10 years for manslaughter in a case in which prosecutors said her confession had been “coaxed” by Mr. Scarcella. Ms. Gathers died this summer at 65. Her lawyer, Lisa Cahill, said Ms. Gathers had missed the first 10 years of her granddaughter’s life, and had lived with shame for years.

Vanessa Gathers, right, with Ken Thompson, the former Brooklyn district attorney. Ms. Gathers spent 10 years in prison for a manslaughter Mr. Scarcella investigated.Credit…Andrew Kelly for The New York Times

Ms. Cahill added that while the settlements in Mr. Scarcella’s cases may sound significant, the total “probably does not even come close to capturing the true cost of his crimes, which by definition is generational in nature.”

“Money does not magically make these scars, the bitterness, the shame and the questions disappear overnight,” she said.

In a case investigated by Mr. Scarcella, Derrick Hamilton, center, was accused of killing a Brooklyn man in 1991. He spent 23 years in prison.Credit…Anthony Lanzilote for The New York Times

Derrick Hamilton, who received $6.6 million from the city after serving 23 years in prison, now works on wrongful conviction cases for Cardozo Law School and co-founded an advocacy group called Families and Friends of the Wrongfully Convicted.

He led the charge against Mr. Scarcella even while he was behind bars, and said several more defendants were still fighting to have their cases heard.

“It hasn’t stopped,” Mr. Hamiltonsaid. “They’re still coming.”

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