Despite his dubious track record, retired Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella relishes the spotlight. He is always dapper, physically fit and ready to spar.
Yet last week at the Brooklyn courthouse, the spotlight dimmed. The Indypendent was the only outlet that covered Scarcella’s two-day testimony regarding his handling of the investigation of the 1986 murder case that resulted in James “Wag” Jenkins’ conviction and 54-years-to life sentence.
The press missed a good show, featuring fireworks between Louie and an exoneree, the detective’s defiant bluster (“I never threatened witnesses!”), and Scarcella’s finger-pointing at the Brooklyn DA’s office role in approving his questionable arrests.
That the theatrical performer wore a K95 mask, a face shield, and bifocals added a bizarre element to the testimony — with Scarcella taking on a space alien aura.
Fifteen convictions in which Scarcella played a pivotal role have resulted in exonerations. (A retrial in another case is slated for mid-June.) The statute of limitations has expired on any criminal penalties he can receive for the initial wrongful arrests and false documentation. Scarcella, however, can face charges for perjury during post-conviction hearings.
But other than the two assistant DAs seeking to uphold Jenkins’ conviction, no other members of Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez’s office attended Scarcella’s testimony last week. Gonzalez’s team does not appear to be particularly concerned about the detective’s handiwork, which has stolen countless years from mostly Black Brooklyn residents and cost the city multiple millions in compensation.
As Louie exited the courtroom for the lunch break last Wednesday, one of his exonerees, Shawn Williams, dropped his mask so Scarcella could see his face. Rather than look away, the detective stared right at Williams, prompting the latter to drop an f-bomb. “He took more than 20 years of my life!” Williams exclaimed as he left the courtroom.
Another Scarcella exoneree, Derrick Hamilton, is a paralegal assisting James Jenkins’ attorney Justin Bonus in the current hearing before Brooklyn judge Sharen Hudson, who will decide whether or not to uphold or overturn the conviction. In early 1988, a Brooklyn jury deemed Jenkins, 19, guilty of the October 1986 murder of 26-year-old Jaime Prieto in Crown Heights.
On the stand last week, Scarcella initially stated that he remembered the Prieto case, on which he was the lead detective. Yet, other than recalling the names of a few of the witnesses, the detective nevertheless denied any memory of the most relevant details of his investigation.
“This was 36 years ago,” Louie frequently asserted after claiming that he did not remember specifics in the Prieto case. That stands in contrast to a separate case Scarcella handled that also involved Nathan Torres, the key witness versus Jenkins. It took place one year after Prieto’s murder, and among other details, Louie told the court that he recalled finding the murder weapon inside of a hollowed-out radio.
Scarcella nevertheless testified that he did not recall how he first learned that James Jenkins was a suspect in Prieto’s murder. Nor could he explain why the witness statements he presented as verbatim in his police reports (called DD-5’s) repeatedly referred to the suspect as “James,” even though everyone in the neighborhood knew Jenkins as “Wag.” Louie did admit to altering the verbatim statements to include cop info — the “northwest corner” of an intersection, a precise building address and more.
While the specifics of some investigations surely can be more memorable than others, Scarcella’s memory loss regarding the witness identification procedures he conducted in the Prieto case is implausible. After first insisting that he was unfamiliar with the term “best practices,” Scarcella then maintained that he received no training in identification procedures at the police academy — prompting grumbles of disbelief among Jenkins’ many supporters in the courtroom.
Four witnesses identified Jenkins in a “show-up,” wherein the suspect is the only person viewed by the witness (via a one-way mirror). “I didn’t need to conduct a lineup,” Scarcella declared. Yet when confronted with the fact that three of the four witnesses either did not know Jenkins or had not been interviewed, Louie then stated that all three should have seen Jenkins placed in a lineup.
Prior to the show-ups, Scarcella also told the witnesses some variation of “we have the guy.” The trial judge in Jenkins’ case thus declared that the show-ups were “a classic illustration of what not to do.” Louie’s handiwork nevertheless helped secure the indictment. In the current hearing, two witnesses who testified versus Jenkins at his trial have recanted. The DA’s team maintains that because two other witnesses — the aforementioned Nathan Torres, as well as a woman struggling with crack addiction — have not recanted, the conviction should stand.
Scarcella called attention to the role of the DA’s office in approving his work in the case. He volunteered that “an ADA named Jon Besunder read every DD-5, interviewed the witnesses and authorized the arrest of James Jenkins.” According to attorney Justin Bonus, Besunder’s name does not appear in any of the documents provided thus far to the defense.
This was not the first time that Scarcella identified Besunder as a key player in the DA’s homicide bureau — but it was the detective’s clearest statement to date regarding Besunder’s role in overseeing arrests. Whether or not Besunder will testify in Jenkins’ current hearing is not yet clear. The DA’s spokesperson declined to comment on Besunder’s role, citing the ongoing hearing.
Even as he implicated the DA’s office, Scarcella also touted the fact that even when overturning convictions connected to the detective, Gonzalez’s office has found “absolutely no wrongdoing on my part.” Conversely, in a pivotal appellate ruling regarding the detective’s cases, a state judge noted that the DA’s appeals team “did not deny once that Scarcella committed misconduct.” Gonzalez ran unopposed for reelection in 2021, so his problematic handling of Louie’s cases has not received much recent scrutiny.
“As we have seen thus far, James Jenkins is innocent and was clearly framed by Detective Scarcella,” says Bonus. Louie will complete his testimony when the hearing resumes in mid-July.
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