Thursday, June 13, 2013


Murder Confessions Taken by Brooklyn Detective Louis Scarcella Have Similar Language

As the Brooklyn homicide detective Louis Scarcella told it, the suspect in a ruthless home invasion that left one man dead and two more people in a coma started talking after just a few minutes of questioning.

“You got it right,” the suspect, Jabbar Washington, said. “I was there.”

The phrase was straightforward and damning, introducing the central piece of evidence that sent him to prison for 25 years to life. At the 1997 trial, Mr. Scarcella told the jury that it was the easiest confession he had obtained in more than two decades working for the Police Department.
A confession by Jabbar Washington in his 1997 murder trial uses phrases found in other confessions recorded by Mr. Scarcella.
But if the interrogation was unique for him, the wording was not. In at least four more murder cases, suspects questioned by Mr. Scarcella began their confessions with either “you got it right” or “I was there.”

Mr. Scarcella, 61, was a member of the Brooklyn North Homicide squad who developed a reputation for eliciting confessions when no other detective could. But questions about his credibility have led the Brooklyn district attorney’s office to reopen all of his trial convictions.

The similarity of the confessions, which was discovered in a review of cases by The New York Times, raises new doubts about the statements that Mr. Scarcella presented and that the prosecutors used to win convictions in dozens of murder cases. One of the men, David Ranta, who had spent more than two decades arguing that he never made the confession attributed to him that began “I was there,” has already been released from prison.

Defense lawyers fighting the convictions say the resemblance of statements attributed to inmates who shared nothing in common makes it more likely that Mr. Scarcella fabricated evidence, laying the groundwork for cases to be dismissed and millions to be paid in wrongful conviction lawsuits.

“It’s sort of beyond belief that it would be coincidental,” said Steven Banks, chief lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, which is reviewing 20 cases handled by Mr. Scarcella.

Mr. Scarcella, a 26-year veteran who retired in 1999, stood by his record, saying he was one of the best detectives in the department. As for the similarities, he said: “I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. I will say this again: I have never fabricated a confession in my life.”

In a previous interview, Mr. Scarcella said that because of Mr. Ranta’s recent exoneration, inmates now considered him a “get-out-of-jail-free key.”

However, records show that in many cases, the allegations of misconduct and manufactured confessions are not new.

Mr. Washington, who is still in prison for the 1995 killing of Ronald Ellis, took the stand in his trial and testified that Mr. Scarcella provided the script for the confession. The detective, he said, grabbed him by the neck and testicles and forced him to sign his name to a document the detective wrote. “He always said the cop fed him what to say,” said Mark Pollard, who was Mr. Washington’s lawyer at the trial.

Mr. Washington, who was 23 during the trial, had an alibi, and the survivors of the shooting were unable to identify him in court, leaving the confession as the crux of the prosecution’s case. Mr. Washington’s claim of a forced confession was undermined, prosecutors wrote in response to his appeal, by a video of the confession that showed he did not appear to be looking to Mr. Scarcella for cues.

“The D.A. broke the confession down and tried to show it was extemporaneous,” Mr. Pollard said. “But I would not accept these similarities as coincidence. It definitely doesn’t smell right.”

By then the language had already appeared in several other cases. One of them centered on a 1994 arson in Williamsburg in which two people died. The suspect, Hector Lopez, had been entangled in a dispute with his former girlfriend and her new boyfriend, both of whom survived, and was accused of setting the man’s building on fire.

After about 12 hours in custody, Mr. Scarcella said that Mr. Lopez began to weep and said: “You guys got it right.”

Mr. Lopez, who was confronted with other evidence like a gas can in his car, is serving 25 years to life at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, N.Y. But his lawyer, William Loeb, wrote in an appeal that discrepancies between the confession and evidence suggested “the disturbing likelihood” that Mr. Scarcella had made up the confession.

Pierre Sussman, Mr. Ranta’s lawyer, said that was precisely what Mr. Scarcella did with Mr. Ranta, who in 1990 was an unemployed drug addict when the detective questioned him for the killing of a Hasidic rabbi. Mr. Scarcella testified that he was at central booking with Mr. Ranta when his prisoner did an about-face and decided to come clean about the robbery and shooting.

Mr. Scarcella said he scribbled the man’s exact words on the back of a manila envelope, starting with “I was there.”

Mr. Ranta, who has frequently said he never confessed to the detective, was exonerated in March after 23 years in prison. “If you take a look at statements given to Detective Scarcella, and they start out the same way — ‘I was there’ — and then follow with a narrative, that’s a huge problem,” Mr. Sussman said. “It’s a sign that it may be Scarcella’s words, and not the suspects’.”

Scholars who study police interrogations say it is not uncommon for confessions to include traces of the detective’s speech, particularly law enforcement jargon the suspect was unlikely to have used without prompting. In addition, sometimes a detective will prompt a person to admit being present at the crime scene, while still playing down the role in the crime, a technique known as minimizing, which has been cited as sometimes leading to false confessions.

“It’s hard to imagine all five people used the same exact words,” said Richard Leo, a University of San Francisco law professor who specializes in confessions. “It almost sounds like a template.”

The phrases still seemed etched in Mr. Scarcella’s memory. Even in spontaneous retellings of various confessions in recent years, he has reached for those exact words.

In an interview with The New York Post last month, he 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.”

Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, has declined to publicly identify the 50 cases that are under review by the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit. So it is unclear how many more may have featured such language.

“We are looking for certain patterns,” said Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for the office. The wording “may be a pattern.”

An earlier examination by The Times also showed that Mr. Scarcella used the same crack-addicted prostitute as a witness in a series of unrelated murder cases.

The Legal Aid Society was informed by the office that 20 of the cases under review involved the agency’s clients. At the request of The Times, the organization’s lawyers reviewed those cases and found two with similar wording at the start of the confession. They declined to reveal the names but said both defendants served about 14 years in prison for shootings that took place in the 1990s, six years apart.

“One of the confessions includes ‘I was there’ and the other says, ‘I want to tell you the truth: you are right,’ ” Mr. Banks said. “Given the patterns that are emerging, clearly that gives great concern about the detective’s techniques.”

Louis Scarcella, who retired in 1999, on the "Dr. Phil" show in 2007.


The New York Times
A version of this article appeared in print on June 13, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: In Confessions Detective Took, Shared Phrases.

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Respect for the truth is almost the basis of all morality.
Nothing can come from nothing.

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