The tale of retired New York Police Department (NYPD) detective Louis N. Scarcella is a chilling story of abuse of power and corruption. The former detective, known as “the closer,” has cost taxpayers an astonishing $110 million in settlements of over a dozen overturned convictions.
Scarcella has been accused of fabricating witness testimonies, coercing suspect confessions, and other corrupt activities that resulted in numerous individuals being wrongfully imprisoned. Yet, despite the allegations and the financial impact on New York taxpayers, he has not been charged with any crimes.
A single New York City police detective accused of trying to close murder cases by concocting false witness testimony and coercing confessions has cost taxpayers $110 million in settlements to more than a dozen people whose convictions were overturned after some had spent decades in prison.
People investigated by the former detective, Louis N. Scarcella, have already received a total of $73.1 million in settlements from New York City and another $36.9 million from the state, according to the city and state comptroller offices. The payouts are expected to rise by tens of millions more, because the men cleared last year of burning a subway token clerk alive in 1995 have filed claims against the state
The $110 million went to 14 different defendants, including a woman who died a few years after her release, a man who was just 14 when he was arrested on murder charges and a man whose settlement went to his mother because he died in prison at age 37. One man, let out of prison after 23 years, had a severe heart attack just two days later.
Mr. Scarcella has not been charged with any crimes, but no other New York Police Department officer has ever come close to costing taxpayers as much, lawyers involved in the cases say. Experts in wrongful convictions say the sum is “staggering” and puts Mr. Scarcella in the company of just a handful of other police officers in Chicago and Philadelphia accused of rigging dozens of cases, costing millions.
Scarcella’s cases span from the 1980s to the 1990s and have repeatedly been placed under scrutiny due to his questionable methods, which have been questioned by defense attorneys and even some of his colleagues. He is believed to have coached witnesses, often under threats, and not only coerced false confessions but completely fabricated them.
“While many police officers in New York City history have made excessive amounts of overtime, no police officer in the history of New York and quite possibly the history of policing has cost taxpayers over $100 million for his misconduct,” said Ronald Kuby, a civil rights lawyer who has won settlements in three Scarcella cases. “And there’s more to come.”
David Ranta, who was falsely accused of the 1990 murder of a rabbi in Brooklyn, was the first of Scarcella’s victims after spending over two decades in prison. The case against him began to crumble when a witness claimed that an unnamed detective, believed to be Scarcella, instructed him on which suspect to pick out of a lineup. It was later revealed that the detective and his partner allowed violent criminals out of prison to smoke crack cocaine and use prostitutes in exchange for providing incriminating testimony against Ranta.
After Scarcella’s misconduct was exposed, the district attorney’s office reviewed all of his homicide cases in which he testified and there was a guilty verdict. This review resulted in the overturning of several other convictions, including Vanessa Gathers, who died a few years after her release, and Derrick Hamilton, who served 23 years in prison after being falsely convicted of murder.
Over the years, Scarcella, 72, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. In a 2013 interview with the New York Times, he said: “I never fudged a lineup in my life.” His lawyers argued that his methods were legal at the time and that some are still used today.
If Kuby is correct, and there is “more to come” concerning people falsely accused due to Scarcella’s misconduct, then it will provide an even more disturbing reminder about what can happen when those charged with enforcing the law abuse the authority with which they have been entrusted.
Unfortunately, the fact that Scarcella has not been held accountable for his actions underscores why this level of corruption happens in the first place. Indeed, even when officers are found to have violated people’s rights, it is taxpayers who foot the bill for compensating their victims, not the law enforcement officials involved.