In the bloody years when murders peaked in New York City, Detective Louis Scarcella built a reputation for closing cases.
A second-generation cop who smoked cigars, ran marathons, worked at a Coney Island amusement park and played “adventurer” on his business card, the now-retired detective has been outspoken about lying to suspects, even praying with they. , for information. In the 1980s and 1990s, he got confession after confession. Prosecutors got conviction after conviction.
But in the past nine years, nearly 20 murders and other convictions have been dropped after defendants accused Scarcella of coercing or inducing false confessions and false witness identification, which he denies. The same Public Ministry that won these convictions ended up repudiating most of them.
However, the Brooklyn District Attorney has defended many other cases the detective has worked on. For the first time, prosecutors have been retrying one of these cases for a long time.
“This defendant is still guilty,” prosecutor Chow Yun Xie said at the retrial of Eliseo DeLeon, who pleads not guilty. DeLeon’s murder conviction was overturned in 2019 after he spent 24 years behind bars.
With a verdict set for Aug. 31, the new trial illustrates the complicated line the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office has been treading for a decade of doubts about the work of a former star detective.
Scarcella worked on homicides when they rose to more than 2,200 a year citywide in 1990. There were less than 500 last year.
After retiring in 1999, he told “Dr. Phil” show that he did “everything I have to do within the law” to obtain confessions or cooperation.
“The bad guys don’t follow the rules when they kill Ma and Pop,” he said. “I don’t play by the rules, but I play by the moral rules and the rules of Brooklyn prison.”
Years later, the prosecution became known for its Belief Review Unit, which examined hundreds of cases and agreed to exonerate more than 30 people after individual investigations. (Also, 90 drug convictions were dropped en masse because of allegations of police corruption unrelated to Scarcella.)
So far, 17 people in cases involving Scarcella have been effectively exonerated when prosecutors denied convictions or refused retrials after judges overturned guilty verdicts.
In two other cases — including DeLeon’s — the convictions were overturned, but prosecutors are struggling to reinstate them. Prosecutors also concluded that the convictions must stand in dozens of other Scarcella-related cases, although some defendants are trying to persuade the courts otherwise.
“In all cases involving this former detective, the CRU has thoroughly reviewed all evidence, and the decision to overturn or maintain the conviction is based on the facts of the individual case, taking into account previous findings about Scarcella’s conduct,” he said. promoter Eric Gonzalez. said in a statement to the Associated Press.
Prosecutors say Scarcella and her partner played only a minor role in the DeLeon case. And prosecutors emphasize that two eyewitnesses — the victim’s wife and a stranger — returned to court 27 years later to identify DeLeon again as the murderer of victim Fausto Cordero.
“We were required to present this evidence” again, the prosecutor’s office said.
An alleged thief shot Cordero as he was returning home from a religious confirmation party in 1995 with his wife and other relatives, including the couple’s 7-year-old son. A tip led the police to DeLeon, then 18 years old. Detective Stephen Chmil was assigned to the case, and his partner Scarcella became involved.
How involved is a key issue in the retrial.
Case paperwork shows that Scarcella accompanied Chmil and Detective Anthony Baker to arrest DeLeon. When they took DeLeon to a police station, he said he was out of town when the shooting took place.
At the police station, Scarcella was present while DeLeon read her rights, shows her paperwork. But there is controversy over whether the detective participated in an interrogation that police and prosecutors say produced a documented confession in just a few sentences. DeLeon says the detectives made it up.
When Baker and some prosecutors turned on a video camera, DeLeon asked a lawyer to “make sure my situation is correct.”
“I’m not going to just be a fool, put myself on tape and say I did something I didn’t do. I’m not stupid,” he said in the video, which jurors at his initial trial didn’t understand. t allowed to see.
Scarcella testified last month that she didn’t remember the case but believes she wasn’t at the interrogation, though Baker said Scarcella was there but didn’t say anything, and Chmil said her partner wasn’t the type to keep quiet.
DeLeon’s lawyers don’t buy that Scarcella was a little player.
“Everything in this case has been tarnished” by Scarcella and Chmil, defense attorney Cary London said in a summary last month. He argued that the confession was fabricated and that the witnesses’ identifications were inaccurate and questionably obtained.
Xie said the case “has stood the test of time” and that the focus on Scarcella and Chmil was misguided.
The verdict rests with Judge Dena Douglas, who is hearing the case without a jury.
Scarcella and Chmil, also retired, spent years defending their investigations as court hearings and news broke their cases apart. His lawyers say investigators used techniques that are legal and have lasted to this day and that prosecutors have approved all murder arrests and examined all evidence.
“Detectives worked diligently to arrest the correct perpetrator and maintain their work,” attorneys Alan Abramson and Joel Cohen said in a statement to the AP.
In DeLeon’s retrial, Scarcella made it clear that she’s not questioning herself.
“Did you pride yourself on being a good homicide detective in the 80s and 90s?” London asked.
“I still have it,” Scarcella said.