The Scarcella Files: When Unethical Prosecutors Get Off Scot-Free

Issue 287

An Indypendent review of the prosecutors’ track records shows that not a single assistant district attorney experienced any public repercussions for overseeing a flawed murder conviction that involved notorious Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella.

Theodore Hamm May 2

One became the district attorney of one of New York’s largest counties. Four became judges. Five assumed high-ranking positions in local DA offices. Several others moved on to successful careers in private practice. 

One of the above even spent four terms in the House of Representatives. 

Meanwhile, a grand total of zero assistant district attorneys (ADAs) experienced any public repercussions for overseeing a flawed murder conviction that involved notorious Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella. 

As of mid-April 2024, 21 cases involving Scarcella have resulted in reversal of the original trial verdicts — and two more saw juries acquit defendants after judges raised red flags about the prosecution’s case.

Twenty-one falsely convicted people, all but one a person of color, served hundreds of years of prison time before being exonerated after revelations that prosecutors relied on Scarcella’s ginned-up evidence.

The Indypendent’s preliminary review of the Scarcella prosecutors’ track records also reveals that at least six won convictions not involving the flashy detective that also resulted in overturned verdicts. Eric Bjorneby, currently a Nassau County judge, handled two dual-defendant cases that were reversed at the behest of the Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU), producing four exonerations. 

Soon after Scarcella’s tactics were called into question by The New York Times in 2013, then-Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes announced the office would conduct an extensive review of murder cases in which Scarcella played an essential role. The DA’s office says that the inquiry — which continued under Hynes’ successors Ken Thompson and Eric Gonzalez, and included 77 cases that went to trial — is now mostly complete. 

“You would think that at some point, somebody in the office might have said, ‘Maybe we ought to look at other convictions by the ADAs who handled Scarcella’s cases,’” says veteran New York City journalist Steve Fishman, co-host of The Burden, a podcast that includes extensive interviews with the notoriously theatrical detective and several exonerees. 

But people familiar with the inner workings of the Brooklyn DA’s office tell The Indy that no ADA’s caseload was placed under the microscope. “We never found a pattern that merited an investigation of any individual prosecutors,” recalls Jessica Wilson, a former ADA who worked in the CRU from 2014-17. Wilson investigated cases including Darryl Austin and Alvena Jennette, two of the first three Scarcella exonerations by the Conviction Review Unit in 2014. Bjorneby won both convictions. 

Disgraced former NYPD Police Detective Louis Scarcella

An inquiry into the Scarcella prosecutors’ track records likely would reveal patterns of police misconduct habitually condoned by the DA’s office. It would almost certainly show that Scarcella was not the only NYPD detective that used dubious tactics resulting in faulty convictions during the 1980s-90s. Regardless of how many reversals it produces, an inquiry would yield at least some measure of accountability for the Brooklyn DA’s office’s own misdeeds. 

•   •   •

Persuaded by defendants, their lawyers and CRU investigators, the DA’s office has thus far exonerated 13 men and one woman convicted of murder in a case that involved Scarcella. After challenges by their legal teams in court proceedings, seven other defendants ensnared by the detective saw their convictions overturned by state judges.  

Except for David Ranta, all of the Scarcella reversals have involved people of color, nearly all Black men. The CRU, meanwhile, has exonerated nearly two dozen more men with wrongful murder convictions in non-Scarcella cases (all people of color). Yet in most instances, the office has not identified the trial prosecutor or highlighted problems in the ADA’s handling of the case. 

“Public shaming and blaming individuals (as opposed to systemic issues) are not part of the objective” when the office reviews past cases, says Oren Yaniv, director of communications for Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez. 

Veterans of the trenches explain that the practice of not identifying the trial prosecutors in reversed convictions is standard operating procedure. 

An inquiry into the Scarcella prosecutors’ track records would almost certainly show that Scarcella was not the only NYPD detective who used dubious tactics that resulted in faulty convictions.

“Generally, DA offices don’t name the ADAs at fault because they want to avoid branding that person with a ‘Scarlet Letter’ that might hurt their future legal career,” says Abe George, a former Manhattan ADA who became a member of Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson’s transition team. George adds that the offices commonly fear that “singling out the prosecutors might make it harder to recruit future ADAs.”  

A recent report issued by the Zimroth Center at New York University’s School of Law takes a different approach. Undertaken with the support of DA Larry Krasner, “Prosecutorial Misconduct in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office” identifies the ADAs in the overturned convictions it documents. In addition to building public trust and accountability, and potentially spurring policy shifts, the Zimroth team argues that naming the prosecutors may spark an “audit or scrutiny” of that ADA’s other cases. 

•   •   •

In July 2022, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez’s office announced it would exonerate three defendants in the notorious late 1995 murder of MTA worker Harry Kaufman, who was killed by a fire ignited in his token booth at the Kingston Avenue stop in Bed Stuy. Echoing NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, Republican presidential frontrunner Bob Dole linked the incident to The Money Train, a schlocky Hollywood flick that opened just before the murder. The case made Scarcella a tabloid celebrity. 

As the CRU’s exoneration reports document, there were multiple problems with Scarcella’s actions. For starters, none of the three men that he and his longtime sidekick Detective Stephen Chmil reeled in — James Irons, Thomas Malik and Vincent Ellerbe — matched the descriptions of the assailants provided by Kaufman, who spent two weeks in the hospital before dying. The victim further said there were two culprits, not three. 

Defendant James Irons had even called 911 to report the token-booth blaze, a rather unusual action by an alleged arsonist. Scarcella and Chmil eventually extracted a “confession” from Irons, who was 18 years old and not literate. That statement implicated Malik (18) and Ellerbe (17), both of whom gave similarly dubious confessions, with Scarcella and Chmil handling Malik’s interrogation. At a lineup, Malik was the only one wearing a red shirt.  

After a lengthy investigation, the CRU concluded that the three confessions were faulty and that in the dual trials of Malik and Ellerbe, Scarcella “likely misled the jury” regarding a shaky key witness named Jacqueline Robinson. According to defense lawyer Ron Kuby, who represented Malik at trial and handled the case while it was in the CRU, the Brooklyn ADA who recorded Robinson’s statement was none other than Mark Hale. From 2014 through 2021, Hale helmed the CRU. 

Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Joe Alexis
New Jersey Family Court Judge Lori Grifa

In its three reports on the exonerations, the CRU did not mention Hale. Nor did the unit identify Lori Grifa and Joe Alexis, the ADAs that handled the Irons trial, or Jonathan Frank, who joined his colleagues in convicting Malik and Ellerbe. According to the reports, the CRU interviewed the prosecutors, who provided “nothing new” about the cases — except for the fact that Robinson was “fooling around with her boyfriend” in a car when she allegedly spotted Malik and Ellerbe near the nocturnal crime scene.

The CRU extensively criticized the prosecution’s work in one of the three cases. During the closing argument in Ellerbe’s trial, the team “exceeded the bounds of proper conduct by making misleading representations about witness testimony [and] physical evidence, and encouraging inferences of guilt based on facts not in evidence.” 

The report then provided a laundry list of falsehoods presented by the ADAs to the jury, including “misstat[ing] the deceased’s account repeatedly throughout the summation.” Nonetheless, the CRU concluded by blaming Scarcella and Chmil, not the prosecutors, for Ellerbe’s wrongful conviction. 

•   •   •

In a current federal lawsuit on behalf of Thomas Malik, attorneys Ron Kuby and Rhiya Trivedi highlight the actions of ADA Lori Grifa. After the overnight grilling by Scarcella and Chmil resulted in Irons’ dubious confession, Grifa showed up at the precinct around 6 a.m. to videotape Irons’ statement. 

“Rather than have Irons describe the alleged events in his own words,” state Kuby and Trivedi, “ADA Grifa primarily asked yes/no questions and provided the account herself.” Despite her “coaxing” and “prompting,” Irons gave answers that diverged from the version found in the detectives’ report. Even though Malik’s name appeared frequently in the written statement, Irons could not remember it when speaking to Grifa. 

While the CRU did not identify Grifa or criticize her role in affirming Irons’ alleged confession, one of the reports calls attention (by name) to a key figure in the DA’s office. The Malik recap emphasizes the key supporting role in the investigation played by Homicide Bureau chief Ken Taub, who steered a veteran jailhouse informant and perjurer to the case prosecutors. In a story that the CRU deemed “patently incredible,” the career snitch claimed that Malik and Ellerbe had indeed been inspired by a token-booth fire scene in The Money Train. 

As bureau chief through the end of the Hynes era, Taub oversaw countless murder cases. On a few occasions, Scarcella has testified about the involvement of Taub’s top deputy Jon Besunder in approving many of his arrests. 

However egregious Scarcella’s actions were, prosecutors remain ultimately responsible for the faulty convictions. “Detective Scarcella did not operate in a vacuum,” Ken Thompson stated on the 2013 campaign trail. “He worked hand-in-hand with the DA’s office.” 

Lori Grifa is currently a New Jersey family court judge. Joe Alexis is a high-ranking member of Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez’s office. And Jonathan Frank is a partner at one of Manhattan’s top corporate law firms. When this reporter bumped into Scarcella recently, the retired detective appeared to be doing just fine. 

While Harry Kaufman’s actual killers went free, Thomas Malik, Vincent Ellerbe and James Irons spent more than 75 combined years locked up for a heinous crime they didn’t commit. As Ellerbe explained in a gripping post-exoneration conversation, the scars of his wrongful incarceration will never heal. 

“It was one of the most emotional cases all of us ever got involved in,” Scarcella told Daily News after Ellerbe’s verdict wrapped up the Money Train convictions. Alas, it’s also a story in which only some of the participants lived happily ever after. 

Faulty Brooklyn murder cases involving Detective Louis Scarcella

Here are 23 cases in which the Brooklyn DA’s office and/or New York State judges have raised red flags regarding a conviction in which NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella played a pivotal role. Scarcella served as a detective from 1981 until retiring from the NYPD in 1999.

DefendantConviction OverturnedYears Locked UpTrial ADAADA’s subsequent
Ronnie Poindexter19975Nicholas FengosNYS Dept. of Corrections attorney
Antowine Butts20002Kathleen RiceNassau DA; Congress
David Ranta201323Suzanne Mondo/NYC Criminal Court judge
Barry SchreiberPrivate practice
Darryl Austin &201413Eric Bjorneby*Nassau Judge
Alvena Jennette20
Robert Hill201427Neil RossNYC Criminal Court judge
Roger Logan201417John HolmesPrivate practice
Derrick Hamilton201524Anne GutmannBrooklyn DA bureau chief
Shababa Shakur201527Richard ShiarellaPrivate practice
Carlos Davis201527Jeff GinsbergPrivate practice
Vanessa Gathers201611Hilda MortensenNassau DA appeals bureau
Jabbar Washington201721Kyle Reeves/ Staten Island ADA
Jeff MuellerPrivate practice
John Bunn &201816Ed BoyarRetired as Brooklyn ADA
Rosean Hargrave24
Sundhe Moses201818Lance Ogiste/Remains Brooklyn ADA
Jeffrey LevittPrivate practice
Shawn Williams201825Lance Ogiste
Eliseo DeLeon**201923Nancy RyanUnclear
Gerard Domond202129Paul MaggiottoPrivate practice
Sam Edmonson202233Daniel SaundersCurrent Queens DA executive
James Irons202227Lori Grifa/New Jersey court judge
Joe AlexisCurrent Brooklyn DA executive
Thomas Malik &202227Jonathan Frank/Grifa/AlexisPrivate practice
Vincent Ellerbe25
Steven Ruffin202414Caryn StepnerNassau DA unit chief
Total Years Incarcerated:425+
*Also handled David McCallum and Willie Stuckey (exonerated October 2014)
**Convicted in retrial in August 2022

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