Fordham Law


Panel to Review Up to 50 Trial Convictions Involving a Discredited Detective

Bruce Green in The New York Times, July 01, 2013

Media Source

A panel of former prosecutors, professors and retired judges has been appointed to review as many as 50 trial convictions involving a detective whose work may have sent innocent men to prison, Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, announced on Monday.

The review panel, which includes some of the most respected members of New York City’s legal community and several of Mr. Hynes’s closest friends, drew fire from a lawyer who represents several of those convicted.

Robert G. M. Keating, an adjunct law professor at Pace University who is chairman of the mayor’s Advisory Committee on the Judiciary, will lead the panel. In his 1990 book about the Howard Beach murder case, Mr. Hynes called Mr. Keating one of his “closest friends,” who jogged three miles daily with him.

The group also includes Joseph Bellacosa, a retired member of the New York State Court of Appeals and former dean at St. John’s University School of Law. Mr. Hynes and Mr. Bellacosa are godfathers to each other’s children, and Mr. Hynes was an usher at the former judge’s wedding some 50 years ago, according to the judge’s official biography posted on a court Web site.

Another member, Patricia L. Gatling, chairwoman of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, was Mr. Hynes’s first assistant district attorney for major narcotics investigations.

“It just seems like politics as usual,” said Pierre Sussman, whose client David Ranta was exonerated in March after questions were raised about the work of Louis Scarcella, a former Brooklyn North homicide detective who investigated the case.

Brooklyn prosecutors had asked a judge to dismiss a murder charge against Mr. Ranta, a former printer who served 23 years for the killing of a rabbi shot in a botched robbery. While holding out the possibility that Mr. Ranta participated in the crime, Mr. Hynes’s Conviction Integrity Unit acknowledged that Mr. Scarcella’s work was riddled with errors.

Mr. Scarcella failed to pursue a lead of another viable suspect, let jailhouse informants out to visit their girlfriends, and is believed to have told witnesses whom to choose in a lineup, the unit’s investigation found.

The district attorney opened a review of 40 criminal cases involving 50 defendants after The New York Times found, among other things, that several of the detective’s murder cases used the same witness, a crack-addicted prostitute.

Many of Mr. Scarcella’s cases dated from Mr. Hynes’s predecessor, Elizabeth Holtzman, but his office for many years had fended off inmates’ appeals.

Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for Mr. Hynes, said prosecutors would present the panel only with cases that appear problematic, along with prosecutors’ recommendations. He acknowledged that some critics might question the panelists’ ties to Mr. Hynes, but called them “esteemed individuals with the highest integrity.”

“The district attorney bears the responsibility of making the final decision on the cases,” Mr. Schmetterer said.

Mr. Sussman, who represents several people whose cases are under review, had several objections. First, he said, only those cases selected by prosecutors will be forwarded to the panel. And the panel itself, he said, is too stacked with former prosecutors and should have included more defense and appellate lawyers.

Mr. Bellacosa said his long friendship with Mr. Hynes would not affect his decisions on the panel, and added that as a member of the state’s highest court, he spent nearly 15 years reviewing his good friend’s work.

“We have through all of the years been very direct with one another. We have been very frank to say, ‘You’re really off base here,’ ” Mr. Bellacosa said. “The task is to lend an independent examination as to the process and to give it checks and balances: ‘Does this pass the smell test?’ ”

Other panelists include: Barbara Jones, a former federal judge and prosecutor; Roderick C. Lankler, a former special prosecutor; Susan Herman, an associate professor at Pace University; Steven M. Cohen, a former chief adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo; Bruce Green, a Fordham law professor; Laura Brevetti, a former federal prosecutor and Patrolman’s Benevolent Association lawyer; William C. Thompson Sr., a former appellate judge and father of the mayoral candidate; John Walsh, a retired judge and former police prosecutor; and Telesforo (Ted) Del Valle Jr., a defense lawyer.