Louis Scarcella (right) with David Ranta in 1990. Art by
Frank Leonardo/NY Post/Splash News
It was a gift, the way he could get bad guys to open up. "Really good detectives," he said once, "are born with this sixth sense, that crystal ball in their stomach. It's having the ability to get inside that person's soul whatever way you can and get the person to say what you need to hear." What else could explain it? Sometimes a case would come along and a whole squad of detectives would work it. But after months: cold as stone. And then Louis Scarcella would show up, find an accomplice, charm a witness, and—bang, just like that—a killer got locked up. A lot of killers. So many killers it's tough to remember. "I don't know how many homicides I caught," he says now. "Some people say 140, some say 170, some say over 200. I really don't know how many." It doesn't matter. Catch that many killers, and they're all just statistics. What matters is how good the detective is, and everyone knew Louis Scarcella was the best.
In 1973, when Scarcella was sworn in, 1,680 people were murdered in New York City, and about as many were killed the next year and the year after that, all through the '70s and into the '80s. And then crime got really bad, and Bernie Goetz shot those kids on the subway, and the Central Park jogger got raped and beaten nearly to death, and the New York Post screamed DAVE, DO SOMETHING! on the front page, meaning Dinkins, the mayor. The murders peaked in 1990, at 2,245—almost seven times as many as in 2013—and didn't start to dip until 1995, when Scarcella was five years out from his pension.
He is 62 years old now, with a heavy brow and shaggy hair that's only beginning to thin. He's fit and trim, muscles ropy under the tattoos staining his arms, and he still keeps a duplicate of his gold shield, which has the same number as his father's gold shield, in his pocket. He doesn't look like what the papers are calling him, a rogue. When he left the job, he was as famous as a street cop can get, because he broke some of the most heinous cases in a city that stratified crime between horrific and merely appalling.
He remembers those cases, the flashy ones that leapt out from the background drone of routine slaughter. The ones he put on his résumé. There was the subway clerk blown up by kids who squirted gasoline through the token-booth slot. That was a big story, a national story, because it was like a scene in a movie called Money Train, and it gave Bob Dole, who was running for president, an opportunity to grouse about how Hollywood was ruining America. He remembers the world-famous dancer, stabbed three times in the chest by a burglar, a grotesque symbol of New York's descent into chaos. Took him a few months, but he got that guy, too.
And the rabbi. That case made Scarcella's name. Chaskel Werzberger survived the Holocaust only to get shot in the face in Williamsburg in 1990. A robbery went bad, the thief panicked and jacked Werzberger's station wagon to get away, killed him in the street. Dozens of detectives worked that case for weeks, got nothing but dead ends. Six months later, Scarcella and his partner found two men who said they were accomplices, and they fingered a guy named David Ranta as the shooter. Scarcella spent hours with Ranta, coaxing. "You're Italian, I'm Italian," Scarcella finally said. "This is your chance to tell me. Tell me what happened." Scarcella wrote a confession for Ranta on the only thing he had, a manila file folder.
Scarcella got the Chief of Detectives' Award for Outstanding Police Investigation for each of those cases. "He is one of the best at getting even the worst villains to talk," Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike McAlary wrote in the Daily News in 1996. "The good detectives are like that. Their ability [to] talk to people make them legendary. In big cases, they bring in Scarcella." He was a legend. He retired a legend. And he probably would have died a legend, too.
But then, in the spring of 2013, something unusual happened: David Ranta was let out of prison.
What made Ranta's release so extraordinary was that prosecutors asked a judge to let him go. In March 2013, after two decades of fighting appeals, district attorneys in Kings County re-evaluated whether Ranta ever should've been locked up. And they decided no, he should not have spent twenty-three years in prison, should not have been torn away from his family, should not have lost the prime of his life, for a crime he almost certainly had nothing to do with.
Twenty-three years after the fact, a witness said a detective (he did not say which detective) had told him to "pick the guy with the big nose" from a lineup. One of the alleged accomplices, a convicted rapist, says he lied to get a break on his own legal troubles. He says the other accomplice, a junkie with five open robbery cases, lied, too. Take away those witnesses, and all that's left is a confession that Ranta has always insisted he never made; he says he signed the file folder with his purported statement on it when it was blank, thinking it was a form that would allow him to make a phone call.
Ranta's release was a big story, maybe bigger, even, than Scarcella arresting him. The City of New York agreed to pay Ranta $6.4 million before he even had a chance to sue.
And Ranta was only the beginning. Other inmates were insisting they, too, had never made confessions Scarcella attributed to them. Reporters for The New York Times burrowed into moldering court records and discovered that several purported confessions began with curiously similar language, such as "You got it right" or "I was there." They also found that one crackhead prostitute had been a key witness, often the only witness, in six Scarcella cases. In May 2013, faced with that revelation, the D.A.'s office announced it would review fifty-seven trial convictions of inmates arrested by Scarcella.
Scarcella was stunned. He'd been retired nearly fourteen years, living a quiet life on Staten Island, and prosecutors—people who used to be on his side!—were second-guessing arrests he'd made in a long-ago New York that most people either can't imagine or want to forget. He swore he never framed anyone, never faked a confession. Technically, he never put anyone in prison, either: Prosecutors presented evidence and judges enforced the rules and juries rendered verdicts.
"I have to be a pretty smart guy to lock someone up, get it through the D.A.'s office, get it through a trial and jury, and convict a guy," he told the Times. "I'm not that smart. It's not a Louie Scarcella show."
On a bright afternoon in April, Derrick Hamilton stood at the foot of the stairs of New York City Hall. Hamilton is a two-time ex-con, once for manslaughter and once for second-degree murder. Behind him on the stairs, crowded to the top and spanning half the portico, were other ex-cons and the friends and relatives of still-cons. Most of them wore baseball caps Hamilton had passed out earlier: black with white stitching that, above the bill, read wrongfully convicted and, on the right temple, victims of detective scarcella. Not all of the cases represented on the steps were Scarcella's, but his was the only name on the hats.
Loius Scarcella (left) on the job in Brooklyn's 90th Precinct. Photo: Alan Zale
April 9 was a tough day for Scarcella. That morning's Times teased another story, on the front page, about someone he'd arrested—the thirty-fourth the paper had published since March 2013 related explicitly or in part to Scarcella. The rally, meant to prod the new Kings County D.A. to quicken his review of Scarcella cases and about thirty others, was organized by Lonnie Soury, a consultant who works on wrongful convictions and false confessions.
"Former Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella," Soury said, "is a symptom of a deadly disease." The problem wasn't one detective, he argued, but the sprawling system that supported and rewarded him.
When he finished, Soury introduced Hamilton. "They ask us to wait," Hamilton said from the base of the steps. "How long can we wait for justice?"
Hamilton has been waiting more than twenty-three years, since Scarcella arrested him in March 1991. Granted, Hamilton was not an upstanding citizen. "Not only was I a bad guy," he told me. "I was a stupid guy." He was on parole for manslaughter—bumped down on appeal from second-degree murder—because he'd been the lookout in a robbery that went bad in the Lafayette Gardens projects. LG, for short. On January 3, 1991, he was violating that parole by being out of state. He had business in New Haven, Connecticut, a hair salon he co-owned, and a social affair, a going-away party for a friend headed to prison for drugs. The next morning, a man named Nathaniel Cash was shot dead in Brooklyn. Another guy, Money Will—possibly one of the shooters—told everyone who came to gawk at the body that Hamilton did it. Cash's girlfriend said so, too. This in spite of the fact that eight witnesses, including a former New Haven cop, swear Hamilton was still in Connecticut. The girlfriend tried to take it back (she'd initially told police she hadn't seen the killing), but she was threatened with perjury and jail, so she told a grand jury Hamilton murdered Cash.
Eleven weeks later, Scarcella and his partner drove to Connecticut. New Haven police handcuffed Hamilton in his salon and told him to face a wall. According to Hamilton, Scarcella sidled up behind him, leaned in close, kissed him on the cheek, and whispered, "LG, motherfucker."
At the police station, Hamilton says Scarcella told him he had five solid witnesses. "I don't care what you got," Hamilton said. "I didn't do anything."
"I don't care whether you did it or not," he says Scarcella told him. "You're going back to prison. You didn't do enough time the first time."
Scarcella and his partner. Stephen Chmil (with mustache), at a press conference held by police commissioner Lee Brown in 1990. Photo: Alan Zale
According to a report Scarcella wrote at the time, the conversation went markedly differently. In that version, which Hamilton says is complete fiction, Hamilton was thinking about turning himself in. Why, he even flattered the man who was arresting him for a crime he didn't do: "You and your partner," Scarcella quoted Hamilton as saying, "are some determined men."
Hamilton was convicted almost entirely on the word of Cash's girlfriend—who's been recanting ever since—and sentenced to twenty-five to life. He was 27 years old when he was sent back to prison, to cages in Attica and Auburn and Wende and Shawangunk, and he would get out, if he was lucky, as a middle-aged man. He passed the years in prison libraries, working on his appeal and helping other inmates with theirs.
Scarcella's name came up a lot. "Guys in prison got time," he says. "We'd talk about it, we compared notes: 'Who's your detective? Who was the guy who got you?' And it was, oh, man, this guy again.
"Once Scarcella's got his eye on you, that's it—you're going away," he says. "If they think you're a bad guy, you gotta go."
Scarcella doesn't talk much to reporters anymore. Oh, he'll say he never did anything wrong when one shows up at his house, and then he'll ask them to leave. He won't walk away, though, let a camera catch him turning his back like he's got something to hide. As it is, his name doesn't show up in the papers anymore without the word disgraced or rogue modifying it. Why give the jackals anything else?
Still, he agreed to have dinner in April at a Tribeca joint called Walker's. His two lawyers were there, too, because it's gotten to the point where Scarcella needs two lawyers. He mostly told stories from the job. Like how he got a child bride to give up her husband in a double homicide after Scarcella gave her a Tootsie Roll. Or how the guy who clipped the milkman confessed while he was taking a leak. It's curious, the things that'll get people to talk. Not the rough stuff, which Scarcella says he wouldn't know about, anyway. "I never crushed anyone's testicles," he says. "I never pulverized anybody. I'm gonna tell you something: I cried with people. I prayed with people." He speaks in a deliberate, theatrical cadence and repeats phrases for emphasis. He says long story short a lot, even though his stories are invariably long. "Louie was an easy guy to identify with," a lawyer once told me, "because he would like you."
Scarcella subdues a suspect during a routine anti-crime sweep in the '80s. Photo: Andy Levin
Scarcella grew up in Bensonhurst and spent his entire career in Brooklyn, twenty-six years. His first tour was in the 66th Precinct, Borough Park. He got laid off briefly when the city went broke in 1975, then got hired back to the 71st, the southern end of Crown Heights. Even then, he had a knack for getting good press: Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the book Wiseguy that became the film GoodFellas, rode with Scarcella and his partner for a January 1981 cover story in New York magazine. Pileggi noted that Scarcella and his partner were "two of the most active anti-crime cops in the city" who, the year before, "made over 200 arrests of stickup men, muggers, armed robbers, and murderers."
He made detective at the end of 1981. "I always wanted to be a detective," he says now. "That was the one thing I wanted to do. Because of my dad. He was my idol. My dad was a great detective." When his father retired a few years later, Scarcella took his father's shield number, 92, as his own. "Proudest day of my life," he says.
In July 1987, he was assigned to Brooklyn North Homicide and partnered with Stephen Chmil, who would become a quieter legend himself, a Robin to Scarcella's Batman. They were a physically mismatched pair, Chmil paunchy and balding, Scarcella thick-haired and sharp-dressed, but they were tight. Off duty, they were running buddies, huffing through marathons together, and they modified their official NYPD business cards: In the corner, stacked above their names, was ADVENTURERS, MARATHONERS, REGULAR GUYS, MOUNTAIN CLIMBERS.
Those cards got passed out a lot, maybe with a folded buck or two. Prostitutes, street urchins, petty thieves—those were all good sources for a detective, and a little token couldn't hurt. Especially then, when there was no DNA, no high-tech forensics, and there were so many bodies dropping there wasn't time anyway. "You were lucky if you had shell casings," Scarcella says. "The high-tech of the era was, like, being able to scoop out a sewer and find a gun." Cases were made with shoe leather and sources, which, considering the neighborhood and the general nature of both the killers and the killed, often meant shady sources.
"You relied on detectives and their shitty witnesses, and your ability to convince the jury that these shitty witnesses may be terrible witnesses, but you know, that doesn't mean that you can't rely on what they're saying," says Joel Cohen, a former Brooklyn prosecutor and one of Scarcella's lawyers. "They come with baggage, you let the jury hear what it is, and then the jury will reach a verdict."
One of Scarcella's best shitty witnesses was a junkie prostitute named Teresa Gomez. One night, some guy took a header out a window, and Scarcella was canvassing the building. "She was in bed with a john," he says. "I walked into the apartment and she looked at me, and I had a cigar—I used to smoke cigars, no more—and I blew a lot of smoke. And she says, 'Who do you think you are, Gunsmoke?' I says, 'What's your name?' She says, 'Teresa.'
"I take her to the 77th Precinct, and I start debriefing her," he says, "and the girl had a lot to say about a lot of things."
Scarcella says she told him about three murders right away. She said she watched Bobby Love—an alleged drug dealer whose real name was Robert Hill—kill two men on two different occasions. She said she saw Hill's half brothers, Alvena Jennette and Darryl Austin, shoot a man for his money. Eventually she told Scarcella about three more murders. She wasn't the most presentable witness, at times belligerent or incoherent or both. Neil Ross, a former prosecutor who tried both Hill cases, wrote online in 2000 that Gomez was "ravaged from head to toe by the scourge of crack cocaine....It was near folly to even think that anyone would believe Gomez about anything, let alone the fact that she witnessed the same guy kill two different people."
But if the police believed her and the prosecutor believed her, why wouldn't twelve jurors? Simply calling her as a witness granted her an implied credibility. Hill was acquitted of one murder but convicted of the other. His half brothers, Jennette and Austin, were convicted and sent to prison, too.
"Scarcella was remarkably good at convincing D.A.'s and judges and juries and appeals courts," iconic civil rights lawyer Ronald Kuby says. "Now, it didn't take much. These were people who wanted to be convinced. But he was a force of nature. A lot of people were doing it. But he just did it with such panache." Kuby is convinced that this is how his client of twenty years, Thomas Malik, got put away for the 1995 subway firebombing that burned a clerk to death. Malik has maintained for twenty years that Scarcella coerced him (physically and psychologically) into confessing—and in 2013, the case was opened for re-examination.
"The idea was to do something about crime," Kuby says. "Or at least look like you were doing something about crime."
So if your best witness was an incoherent crackhead or if confessions miraculously appeared, sometimes it was easier for all involved to suspend disbelief. "Responsibility in the criminal-justice system is so diffuse that no one has to take responsibility," Kuby says. "Except the defendant."
Sarcella doesn't believe there are rules in interrogations. A cop has to obey the law, sure—no beatings or starvings or denying of lawyers—but the law is pretty generous. A detective can intimidate and deceive and lie, like, say, about how he's got five witnesses or a clean set of prints. "The bad guys don't play by the rules when they kill Ma and Pop, shoot them in the head, ruin the lives of their family," he said on a 2007 broadcast of Dr. Phil. "I don't play by the rules." Later he said, "I believe everybody wants to confess, and it's up to the detective to get it out of them."
Like the guy who shot a kid for a dollar. "For a dollar," Scarcella says again, so it's clear the kind of pissant reasons that got people shot, back in the day. "Forgot his name. Joe Blow. I don't know what the bad guy's name was. First thing I do, I go up to headquarters and put him in the computer." Turns out the guy is already locked up upstate, so Scarcella and Chmil hop a little puddle jumper north. "On our way up, we hit these air pockets," he says, bouncing in his seat for effect. "Now we get the guy, we get back on the plane, and I'm trying to talk to the guy, interview him. I talk to the stewardess, say, 'Are we going to hit those air pockets again?' She says, 'You bet your life.' I say, 'This is what I want you to do: We hit those air pockets, couple of minutes before, come and whisper something in my ear. Anything you want.'
Alvena Jennette (top), who was paroled in 2007 after serving twenty-one years. Photo: David Winter/The New York Times/Redux (top). Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times/Redux (bottom)
"So she comes over, whispers in my ear. I turn to the guy, I say, 'They got to take your handcuffs off, there's turbulence, and if we crash, you have to be able—I have to make sure you can swim.' "
Scarcella waits a beat to let that settle in.
"Confessed to the whole thing. Took the confession on a cocktail napkin. The stewardess testified. When we landed, we went right to the bar, and I had a drink, and he had a drink, and we went home. I'm telling you the truth. And he's doing life now."
He tells the story of how David Ranta went to prison not nearly as well. Scarcella is a little prickly on that topic, and it comes out as a series of rebuttals to what the papers and the prosecutors have said. But here's how it happened: Months after the murder, two supposed accomplices—neither ever charged—told Scarcella that Ranta killed the rabbi. (Actually, first they said a guy named Steve did it, but Steve was in Yugoslavia at the time.) Scarcella's gut told him he had the right man, so of course the guy wanted to confess, and it was the detective's job to get it out of him.
So he shamed him, according to the confession Scarcella wrote but Ranta denies making. It's an oddly intimate part of that alleged statement, too, an admission one might not expect a murderer to make to a cop. "You hurt me the most when you said to me that you could not look at me," Ranta supposedly said. "You said I was nothing. I'm telling you this because it bothered me."
In that purported confession, Ranta denied shooting anyone, but admitted he was there and left when he heard shots. If he'd made up Ranta's confession, Scarcella says now, "if I was a bad guy, I would've said he shot him. He didn't say he shot him! Know what I'm saying?" Still, Ranta was tried as the shooter.
Michael Baum was Ranta's trial attorney, and his defense was straightforward: Ranta didn't do it, which wasn't so much a strategy as an actual belief. "David wasn't smart enough to pull this off," he says now. "I didn't see where he had the balls to pull a gun on someone. The worst thing he ever did was steal a car. He was a nothing." And there was this: The target of the initial bungled robbery that led to the rabbi's murder testified that it was "100 percent not" Ranta who pulled a gun on him.
The case against Ranta seemed weak: two unindicted co-conspirators, one shaky lineup ID, and a disputed confession. Even Judge Francis X. Egitto was troubled. "One of his statements," the judge said, meaning Scarcella, "that he took that written statement in Central Booking and there was nobody in Central Booking but him and a uniformed officer in the corner is ludicrous. In all my experience, Central Booking is a madhouse. You are never alone in Central Booking. No one is ever alone in Central Booking....In my opinion, throughout this case the two detectives did all they could to tie it up in a neat package. Whether they did it properly or improperly is not for me to say. The jury will decide that."
The jury decided Ranta was guilty. And the judge, despite his skepticism about the confession, gave him thirty-seven and a half to life.
"Scarcella and Chmil were outside when the verdict was read," Baum says. "And you heard Yee-hah, yee-hah, like a couple of cowboys. And it was not, 'We got the bad guy off the street.' It was, 'We pulled this off.' "
Not long after, Baum was drinking in a Brooklyn cop bar called Callahan's. Scarcella and Chmil were there, too, and Baum says he went over to talk to them. "You guys are so full of shit," he said. "You know this guy didn't do it."
Chmil put down his drink, looked Baum in the eye. "So what?" he said. "If he didn't do that, he did something else."
Chmil, who retired in Virginia, wasn't interested in talking to me. Scarcella, however, denies that happened. "Not only is that a lie, not only is that an untruth and a despicable statement, it's completely false," he says. "I should be stricken down by a horrible disease if my partner ever said that."
By the spring of 2014, Scarcella's cases had been under scrutiny for more than a year. A few of them had gotten a fair amount of attention, but only David Ranta had been released, his conviction vacated.
But on May 6, Robert Hill stepped gingerly into a courtroom in Brooklyn, high above streets he ran as a younger man. He's 53 years old and he walks with a cane to steady himself against the multiple sclerosis that's taken hold since he went to prison twenty-seven years ago on the word of a useful crackhead. With his hair in a long bundle of braids and his new white shirt still creased by its packaging, he listened as a Kings County assistant district attorney told a judge what everyone already knew.
"The conviction of Mr. Hill," the prosecutor said, "was based primarily, almost entirely, on the testimony of a witness we now feel to be extremely problematic."
This was the first time Teresa Gomez would be used to set a man free. The prosecutor from the Kings County Conviction Review Unit described her in court as "hopelessly addicted to drugs, criminal in her conduct for the most part, increasingly erratic in terms of her accounts." That is not significantly different from the way the man who prosecuted Hill described her years before: ravaged from head to toe by the scourge of crack cocaine...near folly to even think that anyone would believe Gomez about anything. Apparently such things just mattered less then.
Derrick Hamilton at a "wrongfully convicted" rally. Photo: Jason DeCrow/AP Photo
The judge quickly granted the prosecution's request to vacate Hill's conviction and order him released. Hill limped to the gallery and sat with a broad, almost dazed smile. "It feels so good to actually clear my name," he told reporters. And then the judge called the next motion: a prosecution request to vacate the convictions of Hill's half brothers, Alvena Jennette and Darryl Austin. The reasons were partly the same—the testimony of Teresa Gomez—but there was also the fact that notes about witnesses who said Jennette and Austin didn't do it had never been disclosed, before or after trial.
Jennette has been free since 2007, paroled after twenty-one years in prison. He stood before the judge with his mother, Louise, at his side. She was there for her son Darryl, who never made it out of prison. He died in 2000 from a respiratory disease. It was a chronic, manageable condition, but sometimes in prison things don't get managed so well. Austin died alone in his cell, choking on his own blood.
Pierre Sussman is a lawyer for all three brothers. He's the same lawyer who pushed prosecutors to let David Ranta out of prison. And he's got a fifth Scarcella case simmering in the courts. To Sussman, there's a fairly evident pattern. "These were disaffected guys," he says. "Poor, young, for the most part people of color, and for the most part, from the worst neighborhoods. They were easy targets....And it got to the point with Scarcella and Chmil, their shit didn't stink. So no one would question them."
On that night in May, Sussman was with Hill and his family at a barbecue joint. A lot of people stopped by, people Hill hadn't seen in years, who'd come to hug him, to touch him, to see him as a free man again. Almost thirty years gone, and friends and family, the people that mattered, still waited. In spite of the lost decades, Hill isn't an angry man. All those years taken away and he's not seething. "Maybe," Sussman says, "the whole thing is just socked away in the subconscious, like a nightmare. It's still there, but it's just put away."
When Derrick Hamilton was in prison, he wrote hundreds of letters to journalists and lawyers, all of which were ignored because that's what journalists and lawyers tend to do with letters they get from two-time killers who say they're innocent. In the spring of 2010, though, he sent his latest motion—including affidavits from a former New Haven cop and three other alibi witnesses—to Jonathan Edelstein, an appellate attorney with a small practice in Manhattan. As he read the file, Edelstein says, "I'm looking at this as a steady unfolding of innocence. I mean, what are the odds someone's going to get an ex-cop to lie for them?"
David Ranta after he was freed in March 2013. Photo: Michael Appleton/The New York Times/Redux
Hamilton's wife sent Edelstein $1,500, which Edelstein returned. But he was moved by Hamilton's case, wrote some legal memos on his behalf, and suggested that Hamilton should get some publicity for himself. Hamilton found Lonnie Soury's name in a magazine story about a teenager who'd falsely confessed to killing his parents. Soury organized a rally for Hamilton and a few of his prison buddies, and it got a few paragraphs in the Daily News. But nothing else came of it.
Finally, in October 2011, Hamilton sat before the parole board with his court files and affidavits and letters of support, including one from Cash's girlfriend, who'd been trying to recant for twenty years. The parole board does not re-litigate crimes. Nor does it typically, if ever, release a twice-convicted killer who violated his parole the last time he was let out. Especially if he doesn't say he's sorry. But Hamilton was far from typical.
"Mr. Hamilton, you've given us a lot to think about," one of the commissioners said near the end of the hearing. "And if, in fact, you're incarcerated for something that you did not commit, I hope that you're successful in your appeal."
Scarcella on Staten Island, where he retired. Photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times/Redux
Parole was granted. Hamilton is still a convicted felon, but he's free. He worked for a while as a paralegal in Edelstein's office and is working on behalf of other alleged victims of Scarcella, almost like the president of a very unfortunate fraternal organization. In January, a Brooklyn court reviewing his case ruled, for the first time in the state of New York, that "actual innocence"—not just procedural error or prosecutorial misconduct—can be grounds for an appeal. Which is important in a case such as Hamilton's, where the errors are minimal except for the part about not having done the crime.
"It was all about framing the guilty," Edelstein says. "I don't think anybody is getting up in the morning saying, 'Let's go screw the innocent.' They were so certain. They didn't stop to think, 'Maybe the case is weak for a reason. Maybe the case is weak because he didn't do it.' "
On the last Sunday in April, Scarcella spent four hours under the Atlantic in a diving helmet, salvaging relics from the Dreamland Pier, which burned in 1911. It's part of a Coney Island historic-preservation project, and Coney Island is important to him. He grew up not far away, in Bensonhurst, a big Italian family, Puerto Ricans across the street, Chinese family down the block. "We measured everybody by how many sewers you could hit a Pennsy Pinkie," he says, which is Brooklyn-speak for how good you were at stickball. Scarcella could go two and a half manhole covers, all the way across New Utrecht Avenue. He's president of the Coney Island Polar Bears, freezing his nuts off in the ocean all winter, raising money for a camp for sick children.
We have dinner the day after his dive. The topic running through the evening is this: Why, Scarcella and his lawyers want to know, are people calling him disgraced? He has been charged with no crime nor found liable in any civil suit. More to the point—and this is a point they make repeatedly, as if repetition will make it less unseemly—none of the people Scarcella arrested have been officially exonerated. That is legally correct but the sort of parsing that gives lawyers a bad name: To be declared innocent, David Ranta, for example, would have to prove he didn't do something—prove a negative—twenty-four years ago. As a legal matter, that's not how American jurisprudence works. As a practical matter, as a commonsense matter, prosecutors asking a judge to toss a conviction and the city ponying up $6.4 million is as close as the system realistically can come to saying it locked up the wrong guy.
And what of Teresa Gomez? Is it really implausible, the lawyers ask, that a junkie prostitute would see six murders in a crack-infested, blood-soaked borough? Prosecutors chose to use her as a witness, and juries sometimes chose to believe her. And so what if confessions have similar phrasing? "Because my confessions, some of them, started the same way means I fabricated them?" Scarcella asks. "I don't understand what that means, because number one, I didn't do it—it just never happened." (Actually, what gives critics pause about those disputed confessions and statements are the little shout-outs to Scarcella's investigatory prowess—"You got it right.")
The reason he is disgraced is that prosecutors are asking judges to vacate convictions. Ranta, Hill, and Jennette were released (and Austin was posthumously cleared) because prosecutors looked at the evidence and decided the men never should have been locked up, that those four men should not have collectively lost nearly a century to prison. It is difficult to overstate how uncommon that is, as district attorneys simply are not in the business of reviewing the decades-old work of their predecessors.
Yet that is not obvious to Scarcella. Disgraced? Only a monster would knowingly arrest innocent men, which leaves him a binary choice: Either he didn't, or he is a monster. What man chooses to believe he's a monster?
In early June, the D.A.'s Conviction Review Unit announced it stood by eleven of Scarcella's cases, but it also asked a judge to release another convicted murderer Scarcella helped investigate, and it still had more than forty cases to go. A legion of attorneys are pressing claims on behalf of other convicts and ex-convicts who claim they were framed by Scarcella. Other cops and prosecutors are involved in other disputed cases, but Scarcella seems resigned to the fact that his name would be the one in the newspapers. It has indeed become a Louie Scarcella show.
It's exhausting, having to explain those old cases, being singled out, a whipping boy for a different time, when New York was a different place. "I have the truth on my side, I have my father's shield in my pocket...," Scarcella says at one point at Walker's, seeming to slump a little under the weight of all those reporters and convicts and lawyers. "I don't know how they get away with it."
Right about that moment, another retired cop walks past the table, a detective from the same era as Scarcella. Twenty-five years ago, that cop caught a rape in Manhattan. The victim, a young woman jogging through Central Park, was beaten nearly to death. Horrible crime. Huge story. Everyone remembers the Central Park Jogger. The cops arrested some kids for it, most black, one Hispanic, said they'd been roaming in a pack. Wilding, the cops called it, and the whole country started talking about sociopathic super-predators running amok in New York City and probably in Des Moines pretty soon, too, if something wasn't done.
That detective in Walker's was one of several who got five scared kids to confess to raping and beating that lady, and then those kids were convicted and sent to prison because they'd confessed. Except none of them had actually done it. In 2002, after all five had served their sentences, a serial rapist admitted he'd been the lone attacker. DNA evidence verified that he'd attacked the jogger, and in mid-June the City of New York paid the five $40 million to settle a long-running lawsuit.
But it was all so long ago. Bygones and all. Scarcella gets up, wraps the other detective in a quick hug. They talk quietly, privately, for a few minutes, then return to their separate seats.
When it's time to leave, just as Scarcella reaches the door to Varick Street, that old detective calls to him from the bar. "Keep punching, Louie," he says. "It's all bullshit."
Sean Flynn is a GQ correspondent.