NEW YORK (AP) — A judge on Tuesday agreed to throw out the decades-old murder convictions of three half brothers who were investigated by a New York City homicide detective whose tactics — including reliance on a crack-addicted eyewitness — have come into question.
Alvena Jennette, Robert Hill and Darryl Austin are the first defendants in a review of cases handled by retired detective Louis Scarcella to have their convictions vacated. Austin died in prison 14 years ago.
At a hearing in Brooklyn on Tuesday, prosecutor Mark Hale asked the judge to toss out separate convictions in the late 1980s that resulted in 18-years-to-life terms, saying it was a mistake to rely on the testimony of a "troubled young woman" who testified in six separate murder cases investigated by Scarcella. The now-deceased witness, Teresa Gomez, regularly got key facts wrong and contradicted herself, prosecutors said.
"The use of this witness deprived (Hill) of a fair trial and as such, this conviction cannot stand," Hale said.
Hill, 53, was only weeks away from being paroled. He suffers from multiple sclerosis and walked into the courtroom using a cane. He and Jennette displayed little emotion when the judge announced they could walk out as cleared men and their supporters broke into applause.
"I'm just happy to be out," Hill said outside court. Jennette, who was already out on parole, added: "I've never stopped believing."
In a statement, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson said the decision to disavow the convictions was based on a "comprehensive review" of dozens of Scarcella's cases that began last year after another man convicted of murder was released on new evidence that the detective had coached a witness. Since then, other convicts have renewed their allegations that Scarcella fabricated confessions and manipulated witnesses.
Scarcella's lawyers, Alan Abramson and Joel Cohen, said in a statement Tuesday that their client stands by his work. He noted that evidence in the cases was vetted and deemed credible at the time by prosecutors.
"The vacating of a conviction is always appropriate when upon detailed review, questions arise that were not evident at the time of the trial," they said. In this instance, they added, prosecutors "did not declare these men innocent of the charges."
In Hill's case, Gomez testified that she saw him shoot a man on a street corner in 1987 and stuff the victim into a cab. Hill said he found the victim already dead in his grandmother's basement, where he went to use drugs with friends, and put him in cab to dispose of the body and avoid contact with police. The friends were never called as witnesses.
At another trial, Gomez told jurors she saw Jennette and Austin kill a man in an armed robbery. The review found that authorities failed to turn over information to the defense that another witness said the men were present but had no part in the slaying.
Thompson has declined to discuss how many more dismissals are expected as his office reviews old convictions. There have been six since he took office in January.
Follow Hays on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APtomhays