Overturned Scarcella Conviction Goes to Retrial for First Time

Cracks Emerge in Prosecutors’ Case as Brooklyn DA’s Office retries Eliseo DeLeon for 1995 Murder.

Theodore Hamm Aug 2, 2022

Of the 20 Brooklyn convictions overturned because of Detective Louis Scarcella’s handiwork, only one has gone to a retrial. 

Last week saw the conclusion of a bench trial for Eliseo DeLeon. The same judge who oversaw the current proceedings, Dena Douglas, tossed DeLeon’s 1996 conviction three years ago. 

A jury convicted DeLeon of murdering a man named Fausto Cordero in a June 1995 stick up that happened in front of the victim’s family. The killing took place on Franklin Ave. near Myrtle Ave. in not-yet gentrifying Bed-Stuy. 

In 2019, Douglas overturned DeLeon’s conviction because of the role played by Scarcella and his partner Steven Chmil in the investigation. Although it had the option to drop the case, the DA’s office elected to pursue a retrial. 

When  the proceedings began in late June, two eyewitnesses who testified in 1996 again took the stand —including Cordero’s wife Blanca. Both continued to identify DeLeon, thus providing the DA’s rationale for the retrial. At the time of the murder, the second eyewitness said that Blanca appeared to have consumed several drinks. 

Of the 20 Brooklyn convictions overturned because of Detective Louis Scarcella’s handiwork, only one has gone to a retrial. 

A few days after the murder, an anonymous CrimeStoppers tipster identified DeLeon, or “Baby Ellie,” as the killer. That DeLeon, then 18, had braids matched eyewitness and 911 caller accounts, but there were discrepancies between the height of the suspect (5’10”) and Deleon, who was then 5’7”. Three witnesses chose DeLeon from a suggestive photo array prepared by Detectives Chmil and Anthony Baker from the 79th Precinct.

At the end of June, Scarcella, Chmil and Baker went to 210 Joralemon St., home to the probation office. As DeLeon left the building after meeting with his probation officer, Scarcella put the cuffs on him.  It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Scarcella’s cases that the detective testified that he has no recollection of making the arrest. 

Eliseo DeLeon on July 28. Photo: Theodore Hamm.

After bringing DeLeon to the precinct, the three detectives (joined by a fourth) interrogated the suspect for an hour. Baker, officially the lead detective, then took down a purported confession from DeLeon “in substance” rather than verbatim. It contains cop language — “male Hispanic,” “in the vicinity,” “sole purpose,” for example — then shifts to DeLeon’s alleged assertion that “I pointed the gun at the victim and he grabbed the gun. The gun accidentally went off. It was just an accident.” 

No witness stated there had been a struggle over the gun. The boilerplate account sounds like a signature Scarcella-scripted statement. Although Baker and his partner testified that Scarcella was in the interrogation room, Louie claimed he was not there. 

Blanca Cordero was then the only eyewitness taken to view DeLeon in a lineup. In the 1996 trial, Baker testified that DeLeon had indeed made that “confession.” Scarcella and Chmil did not take the stand. The jury did not see a videotaped exchange between DeLeon and Brooklyn prosecutors that occurred after the inculpatory statement. 

When the prosecutors read DeLeon his Miranda rights, the teenage defendant asserted his right to have an attorney present. “I’m not gonna be a fool and say something stupid — that I did something that I didn’t do,” DeLeon declared. 

In the video, DeLeon is notably calm, and his body language and direct eye contact lend credence to his statement.

The prosecution’s strategy in the current trial was to make Detective Baker the central figure in the investigation, with lead Assistant DA Chow Xie asserting in his summation that Scarcella played “almost no role.” Baker is in many ways the anti-Scarcella — he is Black, not at all theatrical, and not particularly comfortable on the stand.

At the outset of his late July testimony, Baker seemed forthright and credible. But under cross-examination from DeLeon’s attorney Cary London, the detective’s story started to unravel.

Prosecutors have spun a narrative that makes Black Police Detective Anthony Baker the anti-Scarcella who did everything by the book.

Did Baker really not remember who drove the car when he, Scarcella and Chmil drove DeLeon to the precinct? Baker recalled that he sat in the back. En route, did the detectives not discuss the case with the suspect? Chmil’s notes show that they had talked about the charges, with DeLeon stating he had been out of town when it happened. 

Most improbable was Baker’s insistence that during the one-hour interrogation prior to DeLeon’s alleged confession, Scarcella stayed quiet. Chmil, his longtime partner, testified that Scarcella indeed was “not silent” when they had a suspect on the hot seat. 

On the stand, Scarcella did not offer much about the case he claimed not to remember. But he did deliver at least two variations of “If that’s what Tony Baker’s notes say, that’s what happened.” Chmil and Baker also confirmed that they, Scarcella and Baker’s detective partner had a small barbeque together at Chmil’s house around the time of the DeLeon case. 

In his closing argument, London maintained that the investigation had been irrevocably “tainted” by Scarcella and Chmil’s handiwork, and that Baker had “followed along.” Although London did not use the term “company man,” it certainly applies to people like Baker, who joined Scarcella and Chmil as a Brooklyn North detective one year after the DeLeon verdict. 

As he downplayed Scarcella’s role in his summation, Assistant DA Xie stridently rejected the notion that Baker was “corrupt.” Xie stressed that Baker had a clean record as a cop, leaving out the two substantiated complaints against Baker for an unlawful stop-and-frisk not long after the DeLeon case.

Douglas will deliver her verdict on August 31.

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