Repeated Use of Same Phrases in Confessions Taken By Controversial Brooklyn Detective

Posted: June 19, 2013 in False Confessions
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve posted here about the ongoing review of cases in the Brooklyn DA’s office, many of them involving confessions taken by one man, now-retired Detective Louis Scarcella.  The  DA’s office has said that it is reviewing all of cases  in which confessions obtained by Scarcella played pivotal roles.  Now comes news that in some of these cases, experts see a disturbing pattern: many of the confessions use very similar phrases at crucial points.  The phrases “you got it right” or “I was there,” or both, recur in at least five of the confessions Scarcella obtained.

According to the Richard Leo, professor of law at the University of San Francisco and one of the foremost experts in the world on false confessions, “[i]t’s hard to imagine all five people used the same exact words…“It almost sounds like a template.”

In unrelated media interviews, Scarcella has uses these very words in a strikingly uncommon way, raising the question of whether the phrases that appear in the confessions came from the defendants, or from him.  According to one article:

In an interview with The New York Post last month, [Detective Scarcella] said he still remembered Mr. Ranta’s confession from a quarter century earlier: “I said: ‘You come from 66th Street. I come from 66th Street. We’re both Italian. Why don’t you tell me the truth?’ So he says, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I was there.’ ”

And talking about a different case during an appearance on the “Dr. Phil” television program in 2007, where he discussed the tactics he used to get suspects to admit their misdeeds, Mr. Scarcella recalled a similar conversation with a suspect. “He says to me, ‘Louis, you were right. I was there, but he kicked me, and I shot him by accident.’ I said, ‘Don’t you feel better now?’ And he’s now doing 37 ½ years to life.”

The review of Scarcella’s cases will continue to unfold, and we need to know whether his knack for getting confessions out of people, some of whom have claimed they never confessed, was due to his uncanny abilities to talk people into truthfully implicating themselves, or whether something else — perhaps something illegal — was going on.

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  2. Dana Rodden says:

    Critical in judging these confessions is whether Scarcella wrote out the statements for the accused and had them read and sign them as was the common practice of the day. If so then repetition of phrases, although compromising, would not necessarily indicate the confessions were false.

    • Shellene says:

      If a ‘suspect’ signs a ‘confession’ written by a Detective or police officer in an often stressful, pressurized interrogation room-the chances of not reading every word, understanding the full meaning of what is written and the phraseology used to obtain a certain “point of view” when read in court WILL BE A MITIGATING FACTOR in the Truth of the Confession. This is how interpretations of confession language and coercion are of MAJOR de facto importance.
      Read any police report and you will rarely see ANYTHING that does not LEAD one to draw the conclusion of guilt even in cases of blatant fraud, perjury, fabrication and police misconduct/abuse.
      Prosecutors tend to use what they want to obtain a conviction and downplay or hide exculpatory evidence to the point of holding people in jail and having them face trials and coerce pleas in cases they know are based on No facts, no evidence and no substantive cause to pursue the case or charges.
      In this instance the repetition of phraseology may be the Detective’s ‘style’ of writing, however IF IT WALKS LIKE A DUCK AND IT QUACKS LIKE A DUCK IT IS A DUCK.

  3. Douglas M. Nadjari says:

    If there was any question, the State Investigation Commission’s inquiry of the tactics employed by the Suffolk County Police Department’s Homicide Squad shows us that confessions can be coerced or manufactured. While the common threads here seem are like a clear ” red flag” and worthy of real scrutiny, claims that admissions were fabricated or coerced are the defense of last resort for those who have made “fatal” admissions or full confessions. Such claims are common, often false and must be subject to equal scrutiny.

    I am a defense attorney in NY and served in the Brooklyn DA’s Office Homicide Bureau for many years. I was involved in a number of Scarcella’s cases. In at least one, the confession was promptly recounted by the defendant on videotape. In another there was ample corroborating evidence, including recordings of the defendant’s after-the-fact complicity in a plan to murder key witnesses. Once again ,while common threads are troubling, I can tell you this: Det. Scarcella was an empathic man with a unique talent for establishing a rapport with defendants and witnesses alike. I saw it.

    There are certain conversations or statements that can have a truly profound emotional impact on suspects. Whether the common threads here are a refection of legitimate tried and true techniques or whether they reflect misconduct remains to be seen. Let’s hope that justice can prevail in Brooklyn unswayed by the withering media attention in this election year.

    Douglas M. Nadjari

    • Stephen M. McCartney says:

      This is most likely a perfect example why electronically recorded confessions are becoming a best practice in law enforcement.

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