Louis Scarcella, 61, now retired, a gregarious, former New York police detective who was a go-to investigator for the city’s highest profile murder cases, utilized techniques that might euphemistically be called creative or unorthodox. As the New York Times reported (here) on Sunday, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes has ordered a review of 50 murder cases handled by Scarcella in light of growing questions concerning his tactics and mounting concerns about the integrity of the resulting convictions. Today, the Chicago Sun-Times has published an editorial urging the Cook County State Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit to pursue a similar review of the cases of another productive investigator, Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara.
One of Detective Scarcella’s many murder cases was that of a New York City Rabbi, which resulted in the wrongful conviction of David Ranta, who served 23 years in prison before a judge released him in March. Prosecutors discovered that Scarcella had allegedly rewarded jailed felons with crack cocaine and visits with prostitutes in exchange for helping make the case. A young witness at the time of the investigation came forward years later to admit he was troubled because he had been coached to select Ranta from a lineup. The investigation also failed to pursue other legitimate suspects.
A red flag in Scarcella’s work was his use of the same crack-addicted prostitute as a witness in several murder cases. One of Scarcella’s colleagues recalled that a number of prostitutes received $100 per murder to provide information.
Another issue: Suspects have accused Scarcella of producing confessions they didn’t provide.
Scarcella readily admits he lied to suspects regarding evidence against them in interrogations, a technique that is legal in the United States.
According to the New York Times article, Scarcella’s lineup methods utilized procedures now recognized to be suggestive: showing just one photo of one suspect to witnesses, allowing witnesses to confer, and instructions that included assurance that the police had the murderer. The questionable outcomes present a strong argument for the use of standard recommended procedures that reduce the opportunity to inappropriately influence witnesses.
Allegations of Scarcella’s questionable tactics have been supported by defense attorneys and advocacy groups. Prosecutors, witnesses, and legal records also attest to his reputation as one who didn’t shirk from unconventional methods to make a case.
District Attorney Hynes, who is seeking his seventh term in office and has a history of denying inmates’ public records requests and aggressively defending appellate challenges in Scarcella cases, has ordered the review of the most questionable 50 murder cases investigated by Scarcella.
In response to the announcement of the Conviction Integrity Unit’s review, the Chicago Sun-Times today (here) is urging a similar look at the cases of their own flamboyant investigator, now retired Area 5 Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara, the subject of many allegations by defendants and witnesses of beatings and coercive tactics prompting false statements and confessions.
Guevara’s methods produced both convictions and heavy costs to taxpayers. Juan Johnson was compensated $21 million after his lawyers successfully argued that Guevara framed him. Two other cases are pending in which Guevara is accused of abuse including one case in which he allegedly isolated and beat Gabriel Solache, for more than 40 hours. Solache is a client of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law. The organization has filed a motion citing dozens of allegations of abuse relating to Guevara.
In response to the public’s growing concern over proven wrongful convictions and recognition that the appeals process has been unsuccessful in correcting them, conviction integrity units have been established on several models. Designed to review the investigation and reliability of evidence in ways appeals courts cannot, they hold the promise of providing delayed justice in worthy cases of claimed wrongful conviction. By revealing unfair and unconscionable investigative tactics, they also may provide a new check on official misconduct, present in about half of DNA-proven wrongful convictions. Citizens interested in more accurate criminal justice, protection of taxpayer resources, and safer communities should observe the proposed Conviction Integrity work in New York and Chicago with vital interest.