Murder Retrial Nears Verdict in Rule-Breaking Detective's Case

Another look at Louis Scarcella's work has resulted in overturned convictions
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 21, 2022 11:45 AM CDT
Murder Retrial Nears Verdict in Rule-Breaking Detective's Case
Retired NYPD detective Louis Scarcella, left, walks to court in Brooklyn last month.   (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

In the bloody years when killings peaked in New York City, detective Louis Scarcella built a reputation for closing cases. A second-generation cop who ran marathons, worked a side job at a Coney Island amusement park and jokingly put "adventurer" on his business card, the now-retired sleuth has been frank about lying to suspects to elicit information. In the 1980s and '90s, he got confession after confession. Prosecutors got conviction after conviction. But in the past nine years, the AP reports, nearly 20 murder and other convictions have been tossed out after defendants accused Scarcella of coercing or inducing false confessions and bogus witness identifications, which he denies. The same prosecutor's office that won those convictions later repudiated most of them. Yet the Brooklyn district attorney has stood by many cases the detective worked on. For the first time, prosecutors are retrying one of them.

"This defendant is still guilty," prosecutor Chow Yun Xie said at the retrial of Eliseo DeLeon, who says he is innocent. DeLeon's murder conviction was overturned in 2019 after he spent 24 years behind bars. With a verdict due Aug. 31, the retrial illustrates the tricky line the Brooklyn district attorney's office has been walking through a decade of doubts about the work of a onetime star detective. Scarcella worked homicides as they soared to over 2,200 a year citywide in 1990. There were under 500 last year. After retiring in 1999, he told the Dr. Phil show that he'd done "whatever I have to do within the law" to get confessions or cooperation. "The bad guys don’t play by the rules when they kill Ma and Pop," he said. "I don't play by the rules, but I play within the moral rules and the rules of the arrest in Brooklyn."

Years later, the DA's office became known for its Conviction Review Unit, which has scrutinized hundreds of cases and agreed to exonerate over 30 people. (Additionally, 90 drug convictions were dropped en masse because of police corruption allegations unrelated to Scarcella.) So far, 17 people in cases involving Scarcella have effectively been cleared when prosecutors disavowed convictions or declined retrials after judges overturned guilty verdicts. In two other cases—including DeLeon's—convictions were overturned, but prosecutors are fighting to restore them. Prosecutors have concluded that convictions should stand in dozens of other Scarcella-related cases, though some defendants are trying to persuade courts otherwise. In every Scarcella case, "CRU exhaustively reviewed all evidence, and the decision as to whether to vacate or uphold the conviction is based on the facts of the individual case, mindful of past findings regarding Scarcella’s conduct," DA Eric Gonzalez's office said in a statement.

Scarcella and his former partner, detective Stephen Chmil, also retired, have now spent years defending their investigations as court hearings and news stories picked apart their cases. Their lawyers say that the investigators used techniques that are legal and endure today and that prosecutors signed off on every homicide arrest and vetted all the evidence. "The detectives worked diligently to apprehend the correct perpetrator and stand by their work," attorneys Alan Abramson and Joel Cohen said in a statement to AP. At DeLeon's retrial, Scarcella made clear he isn't second-guessing himself. "You prided yourself on being a good homicide detective in the '80s and '90s?" London asked. "I still do," Scarcella said.

(Read more detective stories.)

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