National News

Another Brooklyn Murder Conviction Linked to Scarcella Is Reversed

Posted January 11, 2018 8:21 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — For nearly five years, Brooklyn’s criminal-justice system has been engaged in an unprecedented project as prosecutors, judges and lawyers have pored over scores of cases connected to former star Detective Louis Scarcella looking for evidence of misconduct. After all this time, the investigation has become a kind of episodic drama, a real-life police procedural that has cleared the names of a dozen people convicted of murder.

On Thursday, in the latest installment of the inquiry, a judge threw out the guilty verdict in another murder case Scarcella worked on, saying that if the jury that considered the matter had known about the allegations against him at the time, it might have come to a different conclusion. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office said it would decide within a month whether to appeal “this very serious case.”

The ruling by the judge came in the case of Sundhe Moses, a Brooklyn man found guilty in 1997 of killing a 4-year-old girl who roller-skated into a hail of bullets meant for members of a street gang operating at a public-housing project. Moses served 18 years in prison for killing the girl, Shamone Johnson, but was released on parole in 2013 after an eyewitness at his trial recanted his testimony.

Since he was released, Moses has been trying to get his verdict formally reversed, in part by arguing, as he did at trial, that Scarcella choked and hit him to coerce a confession. In her order Thursday, Justice Dineen A. Riviezzo said that while some of the claims against Scarcella “seem far-fetched,” the accumulation of accusations that he used “improper tactics” to send people to prison could have proved persuasive to the jury that convicted Moses.

When Riviezzo announced her decision from the bench, spectators in the courtroom in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn applauded. Moses, now 42, embraced his lawyer, Ronald L. Kuby. His mother, Elaine Hill, sitting behind him, hid her face and started weeping.

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” Moses said after the hearing. “The battle has been won. The war hasn’t, but the battle has been won.”

Alan Abramson, a lawyer for Scarcella, declined to comment on the decision.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Scarcella was the New York Police Department’s go-to detective in some of Brooklyn’s most crime-ridden precincts, a swaggering, old-school figure with a taste for cigars and a reputation for getting even the most hard-bitten defendants to confess.

But in 2013, one of his most famous investigations — that of David Ranta, an unemployed drug addict convicted of murdering a Hasidic rabbi — unraveled over allegations that he had been framed. The collapse of the case led to Ranta’s release from prison after 23 years. It also led to the sprawling inquiry into more than 70 murders Scarcella helped investigate throughout his long career.

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office assigned the investigation to its Conviction Review Unit, a team of prosecutors devoted to detecting wrongful convictions. It is one of the oddities of the Scarcella probe that even though the unit has asked judges eight times to reverse guilty verdicts that Scarcella helped obtain, its members have asserted, until recently, that he never broke the law or committed misconduct.

But as Riviezzo noted in her ruling, prosecutors in the unit seemed to slightly alter their opinion of Scarcella’s casework in July when they recommended reversing the guilty verdict of Jabbar Washington, who was convicted in 1997 of killing a man in a Brooklyn crack den. In that case, prosecutors said Scarcella had “intentionally and improperly” testified that a witness at Washington’s trial had implicated him when in fact she had not.

Riviezzo also cited a fellow Brooklyn judge, Desmond Green, who in 2015 overturned the conviction of Shabaka Shakur, another murder suspect who Scarcella helped investigate. In deciding to clear Shakur, Green wrote that Scarcella had “a propensity to embellish or fabricate statements.”

Nowhere in her ruling, however, did Riviezzo say Scarcella had actually hurt Moses to get him to confess. Her argument was inferential: Had the jurors at the trial known at the time that judges and prosecutors had questioned Scarcella’s tactics, it might have provided them, she wrote, “with a different context to evaluate” Moses’ claim that Scarcella had coerced him.

“The judge decided the facts that needed to be decided in order to overturn the conviction,” Kuby said. “I work to exonerate the victims of Detective Scarcella and I will leave what happens to Detective Scarcella to others to decide.”