With the news that the District Attorney of Brooklyn is re-examining convictions in 50 cases featuring the work of one particular detective (see stories here and here ), we see two issues that have surfaced on the Failed Evidence blog before: false convictions and Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs).
First, the cases under re-examination all involve retired NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella, who had a penchant for getting confessions out of suspects when other detectives could not. According to Scarcella, “there were cases where suspects talked to one detective and they got nothing, and they called me and I got statements. A lot of guys don’t know how to talk to people.” Some of these suspects who allegedly confessed said that they had told Scarcella nothing. Scarcella also relied regularly on testimony from one particular drug-addicted prostitute; among the many times she served as Scarcella’s “go-to witness,” she gave crucial eyewitness testimony in two separate murder cases against the same man. According to one prosecutor who had the woman testify in two trials, “It was near folly to even think that anyone would believe [her] about anything, let alone the fact that she witnessed the same guy kill two different people.”
But there is also this: the re-examinations are being handled by the Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), which I wrote about in connection with the exoneration and release of David Ranta, here. As readers of the Failed Evidence blog know, CIUs are dedicated units within prosecutors’ offices, just like homicide or fraud units, that take on the task of re-opening old convictions now in doubt. The first CIUs were established by DA Craig Watkins in Dallas and former DA Pat Lykos in Houston, and they have begun to pop up in other places. In New York, both the Brooklyn DA and the Manhattan DA have established CIUs.
The CIU model for examining possible wrongful convictions isn’t perfect; a CIU is, by its nature, not independent of the DA’s office, and could be stopped in its tracks or dismantled completely just as easily as it could be created. But as I’ve argued here before, they at least represent a step toward accountability for wrongful convictions, in a field in which too few elected prosecutors will touch prior convictions at all. We should pay careful attention to how this large-scale investigation by the Brooklyn DA’s CIU works out; it will say a lot about whether CIUs can be part of the solution going forward.