Even though he retired in 1999, the legacy of Louis Scarcella’s detective work lives on. It lives in the 16 years Jeffrey Deskovic spent in prison for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. It lives in the 23 years David Ranta spent in prison for the murder of a rabbi by someone else. And Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes says its Scarcella’s fault.
The mistakes were largely pinned on Mr. Scarcella, who according to an inquiry by Mr. Hynes’s office let informants out of jail to visit prostitutes, often had no notes to back up his interviews and told a witness to pick Mr. Ranta out of a lineup. Mr. Scarcella, who retired in 1999, has denied any wrongdoing.Bad cop, no donut? Not good enough. This isn’t to say that Scarcella doesn’t bear primary culpability for his conduct, though one would expect his response to be that he was doing so in the name of mom and apple pie, taking the bad guys off the street any way he could. Wrapping themselves in the toxic combination of good intentions and the myth of cops having some magical ability to know who the bad guy is serves to justify all manner of impropriety. It lets them, and usually us, sleep at night, even though it’s total nonsense.
Inmates said he made up confessions, and Mr. Scarcella acknowledged having used the same crack-addicted prostitute as an eyewitness on at least six different occasions.
But as with any complex conspiracy, it can’t happen without the help of others. In Scarcella’s case, those others would have the letters ADA before their name.
Legal experts say the office is playing the role of a champion against injustice after spending decades defending weak cases under Mr. Hynes and his predecessor, Elizabeth Holtzman.Whether prosecutors “knew” or merely turned a blind eye, willful ignorance of the evidence brought to them, could be the subject of debate, but it’s irrelevant. The fact is that it is the duty of prosecutors, whose ethical obligation is not to convict but do justice, to know. The fact is that prosecutors had the opportunity and means to know. If they didn’t know, they have no one to blame but themselves.
“The disturbing thing is the way they are making this look like a rogue detective, when a lot of detectives in the late ’80s and ’90s were operating that way,” said Joel Rudin, a lawyer who sued the city on behalf of Jabbar Collins, a man exonerated after serving 16 years for a Brooklyn murder. Prosecutors “knew what was going on and took advantage of it to get convictions.”
A generation ago, after I approached Bill Burmeister at the Official Corruption Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office with police behaving really badly, later known as the Dirty 30 Scandal, he felt compelled to tell the Special Narcotics prosecutor on the case, Joie de Marie Piderit, that her cops were under investigation. She had some choices at that moment, and the option she chose was to let me know that she stood behind her cops, describing them as “puppy dogs” who would never lie, and then putting them back into the grand jury even though no further indictment was needed, which served to provide transactional immunity.
After the case broke and AUSA Mike Horowitz brought indictments against her puppy dogs, she called me and explained that she never knew. I corrected her, not that it mattered by that point.
Too many assistants come to adore cops, their dashing, hardened life on the streets contrasting with the prosecutors’ cloistered life in the courthouse. They live vicariously through cops, they look up to them, they want to be accepted by cops as worthy of the camaraderie of crime fighters, knowing in their hearts that cops look at prosecutors as over-educated slugs to be manipulated, who have never put their life on the line or gotten their hands dirty.
There were red flags all over Louis Scarcella’s cases, snitches who would give up their mother for a wink, confessions without notes, too much “brilliant” police work for anyone to accomplish. But no prosecutor noticed, or if they did, couldn’t rationalize away for the sake of society. They were doing God’s work, and Scarcella sat at the right hand of the Lord. You don’t question the man sitting at the right hand of the Lord. You bask in his glory, because his becomes yours as you convict murderers and rapists.
Bad cops don’t produce wrongful convictions on their own.