The Crack-Era Cop Who Locked Up the Innocent in NYC
Louis Scarcella was celebrated as "one of the best at getting even the worst villains to talk." Now, New York City has been racing to set those “villains” free.
Mike Baum had his doubts. When David Ranta came to him and said “I didn’t kill the rabbi,” Baum, a veteran Brooklyn defense attorney, shrugged it off. That’s what they all say.
But as they got to talking, Baum quickly realized that he and Ranta had a thing or two in common. Not only were both from Bensonhurst, but Ranta lived in the same Bay Parkway building as Baum’s mother.
Louie Scarcella, the NYPD detective who extracted Ranta’s confession to the February 1990 murder of rabbi Chaskel Werzburger, grew up about ten blocks away. The judge in Ranta’s 1991 trial, Francis X. Egitto, also hailed from Bensonhurst.
As the case moved along, Baum’s doubts increased, but not about Ranta’s innocence. Instead, he began to wonder about Scarcella. Even so, he tells the Beast, “It was 1991 and nobody yet thought that detectives could be so dirty.”
Crime in New York City may have been at a record high, with over 2,100 murders, but Scarcella’s success rate in solving cases placed him in a league of his own. Pulitzer Prize winning Daily News columnist Mike McAlary celebrated him as "one of the best at getting even the worst villains to talk."
A quarter-century later, he is now the archetype of that era’s dirty detective, with prosecutors and appeals attorneys combing through his old cases to see where innocent people may have gone to jail because of his work — even as prosecutors have taken pains not to legally implicate Scarcella himself in the many wrongful conviction cases he was involved in.
Baum, meanwhile, has a notable record of his own: A lifetime batting average of 1.000 against Scarcella, in four trips to the plate.
Ranta’s exoneration in March of 2013 cast a spotlight on Scarcella’s signature tactics. ”One-witness identifications and/or false confessions were his m.o.,” says Baum.
Last month, the DA’s office exonerated Jabbar Washington, who’d been convicted of a 1995 murder in a Brownsville crack den. Scarcella’s instrumental role—he brought in the one witness, then secured Washington’s disputed confession—made it the twelfth Scarcella-tied case where a conviction has been overturned by the DA (or judges) in the last four years.
So far, though, the office — under new DA Ken Thompson and now Acting DA Eric Gonzalez, a 20-year veteran of the office who took over after Thompson’s death from cancer and is now running for election to a full term — has come up with ways to free the people Scarcella helped wrongfully convict without finding any criminal wrongdoing by the detective, who retired in 1999. Because the relevant statute of limitations has expired, Scarcella would not face charges, but it’s abundantly clear that he played a pivotal, shady role in numerous cases.
Gonzalez has pointed to the Conviction Review Unit launched by Thompson, and which has so far exonerated 23 people (eight in Scarcella cases), as a key reason why he should be elected to a full term this fall. But the office first began looking into its own questionable cases late in the Joe Hynes era, which lasted from 1990 to 2013, when Thompson defeated Hynes in his bid for a seventh term.
In 2010, a federal judge overturned Jabbar Collins’ 1995 conviction for the murder of a different Williamsburg rabbi, declaring the strong-arm tactics of Michael Vecchione—one of Hynes’ top prosecutors—to be “shameful.”
After first resisting wider inquiries into the office’s wrongdoing, Hynes eventually changed course. According to Baum, the DA visited Brooklyn Defender Services in December 2011 and asked for cases that merited review. Baum brought up Ranta, and a few months later was informed by Taylor Koss of Hynes’ Conviction Integrity Unit that an inquiry was underway.
Ranta had been convicted in 1991 of murdering Rabbi Werzburger, an Auschwitz survivor, in a case that had sent shockwaves throughout Brooklyn’s Hasidic community. Hynes, then the newly elected DA, had originally intended to prosecute the case himself, before changing his mind and handing it off to a top deputy.
Baum suspects Hynes had doubts about Ranta’s guilt from the get-go, but let the case go forward because of its high-profile nature.
On paper, it seemed like a strong case, with a handful of witnesses pointing to Ranta—and there was a confession. But as Baum explains, Ranta had requested to make a phone call during his interrogation, and Scarcella told him that he had to sign a manila folder in order to do so. On that folder, Scarcella wrote out Ranta’s purported confession, which wrapped around Ranta’s actual signature. As Baum recalls, in the statement Ranta tells Louie, his fellow Bensonhurst native, that “You broke my heart when you talked about the old neighborhood.”
Scarcella received the Chief of Detectives’ Award for Outstanding Police Investigation for his work on that Werzburger case, using dubious maneuvers by no means limited to it. Of Ranta’s confession, McAlary wrote that Scarcella and his partner “captured a man who confessed to the crime. The suspect was convicted by his own words.… It is an art, a cop art.”
Or, as Scarcella put it in a recent deposition pertaining to a different exoneration, he always wrote suspects’ confessions in his own hand because “I found that it makes them very uncomfortable” to do so themselves.
In March 2013, as Hynes’ reelection campaign against Thompson began to take shape, his Conviction Integrity Unit asked a judge to release Ranta. Key witnesses had recanted, they said, and the real killer had been identified. Six weeks later — after the city had agreed to pay Ranta $6.4 million before he even filed a lawsuit for his 23 years wrongfully spent behind bars — Hynes announced that the Conviction Integrity Unit would reopen at least 50 Scarcella cases.
“I have to be a pretty smart guy to lock someone up, get it through the DA’s office, get it through a trial and jury, and convict a guy,” Scarcella told the Times. Baum agrees that Scarcella had plenty of help from sympathetic prosecutors, but deems it “crazy” that Gonzalez now seems determined to let him off the hook. Louie, he says, is “very smart.”
Although his biological father is Italian, Baum grew up in a Jewish household. Such were the two dominant ethnicities in postwar Bensonhurst. Ranta (and later Baum’s mother) lived in the same building where Elliot Gould grew up.
Most teenage males in Brooklyn belonged to gangs during the era, and Baum helped defend the turf of the Parkboys, an Italian-American crew. He and Scarcella both graduated from high school in 1969—Baum from New Utrecht, Scarcella from Midwood.
Their paths didn’t cross directly until the Ranta case, after which they faced each other in three more homicide cases in the early 1990s. Separate juries quickly acquitted Baum’s clients Vladimir Vincent and Joseph Williams, and another convicted Ronald Poindexter (but an appeals court overturned it).
Scarcella hauled in a cross-section of characters to finger the accused. In the Vincent case, the single witness had eyesight like Mr. Magoo. To identify Williams, Scarcella relied on a crack-addicted prostitute who died just before the trial. And in Poindexter’s case, the main witness, a teenage girl, later recanted, saying she had been threatened by the detective.
Even so, Baum calls Scarcella the “most formidable witness I ever had on the stand. Tough, smooth. He has a terrific memory and never incriminated himself.” A sharp dresser, athletic, and charming, Scarcella wooed Brooklyn prosecutors and jurors alike during his 18 years as a detective, when he was involved in nearly 250 cases.
Though he ultimately won all four of his cases against the flashy detective, Baum says he’d be happier about that record “if David Ranta wasn’t locked up for 23 years and Ronny Poindexter for five.”
At a recent deposition in the case of Vanessa Gathers, who was exonerated by Ken Thompson’s Conviction Review Unit in early 2016, Scarcella explained his method of interrogations, which he insists on calling “interviews.” Like Jabbar Washington, the most recent Scarcella exoneree, Gathers had testified at her trial that Scarcella had coerced her into a false confession.
Lisa Cahill, Gathers’ attorney, repeatedly asked the detective to explain any training or methods that provided the basis of his “interview” technique. According to Scarcella, his only source of instruction was the “advice” he received from his father, also a career NYPD homicide detective. Pressed to clarify the specific nature of that advice, Scarcella said: “Treat people with respect, don’t lie. Remember they have mothers and fathers and what have you.”
But a few minutes later, he freely admitted that while questioning Gathers, “I raised my voice. I told her she was lying.” The CRU later found that Gathers’ purported confession erroneously stated the murder victim was in a wheelchair.
As the number of Scarcella-related exonerations continues to grow, Baum no longer has any doubts about whom to believe. “We all know now that Scarcella is a liar.”