Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn DA’

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.

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.

 

I’ve written before about Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) in prosecutors’ offices (take a look here and here).  CIUs are groups of lawyers within prosecutors’ offices — just like a major crimes unit or a narcotics unit, though probably much smaller than either of these — with the job of investigating questionable past convictions from that same office.  CIUs do this when presented with evidence that raises real doubts about the guilt of a convicted defendant in one of the office’s past cases.

The first CIU was established by Dallas DA Craig Watkins, who had then just been elected against a backdrop of more than 20 exonerations of people wrongfully convicted under the past leadership of his agency.  (The latest story about Watkins and the exoneration of wrongfully convicted people in Dallas — examining a fascinating twist on exonerations — is here.)  Just a couple of years later, Patricia Lykos, then the newly elected DA in Houston, established a CIU in her office.  From Texas, the idea has begun to spread.

Both the Dallas and Houston CIUs have one thing in common: they were launched by new DAs to investigate cases that originated under former administrations.  No doubt this is easier than investigating mistakes that have happened under one’s own watch.

That’s what makes this story out of the Brooklyn DA’s office so interesting.  Charles Hynes, the elected DA of Brooklyn, established a CIU that will be looking at cases in which prosecutors obtained convictions during his own six terms in office.  For example, at the end of March, David Ranta, 58, was released after spending 23 years in prison for the killing of a rabbi in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  The original conviction came under Hynes’ leadership; when Ranta was released, Hynes gave credit for the release to his CIU.

CIUs accomplish something very fundamental: they make the task of uncovering mistakes in the justice system into a routine operation.  On the other hand, as readers of this blog have correctly pointed out, CIUs are a lot like internal affairs divisions in police departments: the DAs are investigating themselves.  This is easier to credit when the head of the office is not the same person who was at the helm when the mistakes were made.  It is also why CIUs  are still rare when the head of the office has been serving a long time — long enough to be the one responsible for the mistakes under investigation.

In the course of Failed Evidence, I argue that every prosecutor’s office needs a conviction integrity unit (CIU).  And in “Exoneration and Freedom For a Man Convicted in ’10”  (N.Y. Times, Oct. 27) we get a perfect example of why CIUs are so important.

The article concerns a robbery case brought against Lawrence Williams by the Brooklyn (N.Y.) District Attorney’s office.  The only evidence against Mr. Williams was a faulty eyewitness identification, but it was enough to convict him.  Eventually, another man, already in prison, confessed to the crime.

What makes the case unusual is that Mr. Williams’ post conviction claim that he was innocent was investigated not by an outside agency, but by a CIU inside the Brooklyn DA’s own office — the same DA’s office that convicted him in the first place.  The Williams case is the first such felony case that the Brooklyn DA’s CIU dealt with.

A CIU is a specialized group of lawyers within the DA’s office — just like the ones for sex offenses or for homicide — with the special job of investigating prior convictions in which there are plausible claims of innocence.   In other words, when a real claim surfaces that a conviction that the office obtained in the past is wrong and should be investigated, the CIU attorneys investigate, and tell the DA whether or not the conviction should stand.

CIU’s are incredibly important for two major reasons.  First, they become the regular institutional mechanism for addressing claims of wrongful convictions and actual innocence.  Courts are not set up to correct these types of mistakes, and the CIUs fill this enormous gap.  Second, with a regular mechanism in place to handle this task, reform efforts can concentrate on fixing the system going forward, and they are not consumed with the important work of getting justice in individual cases.

Every prosecutor’s office should have a CIU, or at least one attorney who handles CIU-type matters.  It is an innovation that will make prosecution better, and provided DAs with a regular way to correct mistakes and learn from them.

Readers: Does the DA’s office in your jurisdiction have a CIU?  Does it need one?

Upcoming posts will discuss the history of CIUs, why the Bro0klyn CIU stands out, and other issues.