Many people think that everyone who confesses to a crime is guilty. But coerced, involuntary and false confessions can lead to wrongful conviction and grave injustice. And some cops will go to unscrupulous lengths to make a case.
As a case in point, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office is reviewing 50 homicide convictions to see whether the convictions were based on coerced confessions, The New York Times reports.
The office’s Conviction Integrity Unit plans to reopen every murder case that resulted in a guilty verdict after being investigated by Detective Louis Scarcella, a discredited police detective who handled some of Brooklyn’s most notorious crimes during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
The Times examined a dozen cases involving Scarcella and found what it called “disturbing patterns,” including the detective’s reliance on the same eyewitness, a crack-addicted prostitute, for multiple murder prosecutions, and his delivery of confessions from suspects who later said they had told him nothing.
In five cases, suspects questioned by Scarcella began their confessions with either “you got it right” or “I was there.”
“It’s hard to imagine all five people used the same exact words,” the Times was told by Richard Leo, a University of San Francisco law professor who specializes in confessions. “It almost sounds like a template.”
Scarcella’s name surfaced in March after a judge freed David Ranta, who had spent 23 years in prison after being convicted of murdering a rabbi. Prosecutors determined that Ranta’s conviction resulted in large part from flawed police work.
Among the alleged misdeeds committed by Scarcella and a partner are failing to pursue a more logical suspect, and the removal of violent criminals from jail to let them smoke crack cocaine and visit prostitutes in exchange for incriminating Ranta.
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