The phrase “police brutality” has often been associated with officers beating or killing innocent people, most often people of color. For over a year now, what often comes to mind is the Facebook video of George Floyd gasping for breath under the knee of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer who has since been convicted of Floyd’s murder.
But while footage of cops breaching every standard of reasonable force and basic human decency leads to headlines, if not always convictions, other officers have quietly ruined people’s lives without a gun, Taser, or baton. Instead, they have manufactured evidence and outright lied on the stand.
These cops have buried innocent people alive in prison for decades. Evidence has since come to light that proved beyond a reasonable doubt—beyond all doubt—that innocent people have been wrongfully convicted, and that the real crimes that sent them to prison were perpetrated by the cops who framed them. Innocent people like Willie Stokes, who was released Jan. 4, having spent spending 37 years in prison after two Philadelphia detectives offered a witness sex and drugs in jail in exchange for falsely implicating Stokes on the stand. Days after Stokes’ 1984 conviction, that witness pleaded guilty to perjury after recanting his story—but it took almost 31 years for Stokes and his legal team to learn about that plea.
And yet, like the detectives in Stokes’ case, who both died without facing any punishment for their outright criminal conduct, these cops are rarely held accountable for destroying people’s lives.
One cop who has risen to national infamy for framing innocent people is retired New York Police Department Det. Louis Scarcella. In his 26 years on the force, mostly in his native Brooklyn, Scarcella initially gained a reputation for cracking difficult cases.
That reputation was shattered in 2013, when 35-year-old David Ranta was exonerated for the 1990 murder of a prominent rabbi, Chaskel Weinberger, in a jewelry robbery gone bad. After five witnesses fingered Ranta as the killer, he was convicted in 1991 and sentenced to 37-and-a-half years to life. But in 2011, one of those witnesses, Menachem Lieberman, revealed that, when asked to point out Weinberger’s killer in a police lineup, Scarcella had directed him to “pick the guy with the big nose.”
Lieberman was only 13 at the time, and later told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he didn’t know it “was a setup.” He only realized what Scarcella had done when reflecting upon all the stories he’d seen on the news of wrongfully imprisoned people being “set free in various ways.” This led Lieberman to reach out to John O’Mara, the head of a conviction integrity unit that Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes had recently formed.
On paper, coaching the lineup should have been enough to put Ranta’s conviction on life support. But O’Mara’s investigation found other severe irregularities in the case. The two career criminals who initially identified Ranta admitted they had lied in hopes of helping their own cases. Scarcella also never took any notes when he interviewed them, contrary to NYPD procedure. He also claimed that Ranta had confessed to the murder but never got it on tape—a lapse that didn’t sit well with the judge at Ranta’s trial. For over 20 years, Ranta maintained that he never confessed to anything; additionally, Ranta denied killing Weinberger during a polygraph test—and passed.
More seriously, Scarcella knew there was another suspect in the case, a man named Joseph Astin. Scarcella even questioned Astin’s wife, Theresa. After Astin died in a 1990 car accident, Scarcella tried to get the diamond courier who had been the target of the 1991 robbery to identify Astin at the morgue. Still, he never showed pictures of Astin to robbery witnesses.
Although Hynes had led the prosecution of Ranta in 1990, O’Mara’s review made it apparent that the case was irrevocably tainted. Hynes took the unusual step of asking Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Miriam Cyrulnik to throw out the conviction. She did so in Mar. 2013. Watch that moment here, in footage from a CNN report:
Ranta immediately announced plans to sue the city for $150 million. The near-certainty that Ranta would win, combined with the fact that the same office that prosecuted him was now pressing for his release, led city comptroller Scott Stringer to settle the suit for $6.4 million in Feb. 2014.
Ranta’s exoneration set off a chain reaction of discredited convictions. Hynes’ successors as Brooklyn DA, Ken Thompson and Eric Gonzalez, have overseen a review of cases handled by Scarcella. Those reviews have revealed that at least 15 people were wrongfully convicted under Scarcella’s direction and served a combined 285 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. The city has been forced to pay out over $60 million in settlements.
Scarcella’s own record now shows a litany of evidentiary manipulations: coaching witnesses through lineups, coerced testimony, and false confessions.
Derrick Hamilton was convicted in 1992 of murdering Nathaniel Cash. The sole witness was Cash’s girlfriend, Jewel Smith, who gave numerous conflicting accounts about the murder. In 2007, Smith told prosecutors that Scarcella coerced her into implicating Hamilton. Despite this, it still took another eight years for Hamilton to be exonerated. In 2019, officials in New York and Connecticut agreed to pay Hamilton $7 million to settle a suit against Scarcella and two other officers who framed him. Hamilton now works as a paralegal to help exonerate the many, many others buried in jail by Scarcella.
In 1988, Alvena Jennette and his half-brother, Darryl Austin, were convicted of the 1985 murder of Ronnie Durant. While Austin died in prison in 2000, Jennette was paroled in 2007. In Apr. 2014, DA Thompson dropped a bombshell—he’d found evidence that strongly suggested the wrong people had been arrested and tried.
The detective originally handling the case, Bobby Jones, interviewed two witnesses who stated that Jennette and Austin had nothing to do with the shooting; one witness even gave Jones the name and whereabouts of the person who owned the murder weapon. Scarcella inherited the case after it went cold, but Jones’ notebook was never entered into the case file. It was never turned over to the defense during the trial or during any of Jennette’s nine appeals, even though it was exculpatory evidence to which Jennette was constitutionally entitled. It’s inconceivable that Scarcella didn’t review that notebook.
The irregularities were so egregious that Thompson took the unusual step of asking a judge to exonerate Jeanette and posthumously exonerate Austin before the men’s own lawyers did so. Thompson had come to the conclusion that Teresa Gomez, the star witness at Jennette and Austin’s trial, had framed the brothers at the behest of Scarcella. At the formal exoneration hearing in May 2014, the brothers’ lawyer, Pierre Sussman—the same lawyer who had helped free David Ranta just a year earlier—unveiled yet another flashing red light from the 1987 trial. Gomez’s testimony had diverged so far from the evidence that the brothers’ original defense attorney had requested that she be tested for drugs, but the judge refused to order such a test.
Jennette and Austin weren’t the only ones exonerated that day. So was Robert Hill, another half-brother of Jennette and Austin. He’d also gone on trial in 1988, for the 1987 murder of Robert Manbordes, and Gomez was again the star witness for the prosecution. Hill was convicted, even though Gomez’s testimony was, again, way out of step with evidence. She claimed to have seen Hill shoot Manbordes from a street corner, yet evidence indicated the fatal shots were fired from a completely different direction. She also claimed to have seen Hill cram Manbordes’ corpse into a yellow cab, while other witnesses reported two people putting the body into a blue cab.
Hill maintained for a quarter-century that he’d found Manbordes’ body in the basement of his grandmother’s house, and had three of his friends put the body in a cab and take it to the hospital. Those three friends were never called to testify. Had they testified, they could have corroborated Hill’s account—as they did in interviews with Hynes and Thompson’s conviction review unit. Thompson’s office ultimately publicly disavowed Gomez, with assistant DA Mark Hale saying that his office could no longer stand by the testimony of an “extremely problematic” and “erratic” witness.
Watch coverage of Jennette, Hill, and Austin’s exoneration from the Associated Press here:
Even though both the city and prosecutors have admitted these and other prosecutions were wrongful, Scarcella has never faced any legal consequences for his actions. In 2017, Gonzalez, who was serving as acting district attorney after Thompson’s death, said that there was no evidence Scarcella had done anything wrong.
The sheer number of reversed convictions is enough to make that hard to believe. When one detective has 15 convictions thrown out, we’re well beyond any possible good-faith interpretation. Additionally, dozens of people who have interacted with Scarcella have raised claims of the same questionable tactics.
Judges have tossed out Scarcella’s convictions and subjected Scarcella to severe tongue-lashings. John Bunn and Rosean Hargrave were framed for murdering a corrections officer in 1992, when they were only 14 and 17, respectively. In 2014, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice ShawnDya Simpson threw out Hargrave’s conviction, citing Scarcella’s history of “disregard for rules, law, and truth.” At the time, Hargrave had spent 24 years—his entire adult life—in prison. Simpson used similar language when throwing out Bunn’s conviction a year later. Bunn had been paroled in 2009 after spending 17 years—again, his entire adult life—in prison, and had spent six years fighting to clear his name. Prosecutors finally abandoned any plans to retry the men in 2018.
Unfortunately, current New York state law doesn’t allow for Scarcella to be prosecuted, as the statute of limitations has long since run out. That doesn’t square with any sense of justice. Scarcella is responsible for people losing years of their lives. Even once they’re released, they face great challenges. Jennette recalled having a hard time finding work after his parole, since it is all but impossible for a convicted violent felon to get hired for a legitimate job. Hargrave and Bunn spent their entire adult lives behind bars before being released, leaving them far behind people their age who were never falsely incarcerated. While they and others have spent years putting their lives back together, Scarcella lives comfortably on Staten Island.
Two cops in my home state of North Carolina have engaged in misconduct that hits a different low: They put words in the mouths of people with learning disabilities. In 1993, State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) agent Mark Isley arrested Floyd Brown for the brutal murder of retired teacher Katherine Lynch in Wadesboro, 50 miles east of Charlotte. The arrest was based almost entirely on a detailed six-page confession Brown reportedly gave to Isley and Anson County Sheriff’s deputies. The document allegedly detailed Brown’s entire day, from when he woke up that morning to when he supposedly bludgeoned Lynch to death and stole 20 dollars from her body.
Soon after his arrest, doctors ruled that Brown was mentally incompetent to stand trial. Brown was sent to Dorothea Dix Hospital, a now-closed state psychiatric hospital, where doctors tried to get him to a mental state in which he could go to trial. Over the next 14 years, Brown’s case came up for review 22 times, and each time, doctors found him mentally incompetent.
Brown did not have the mental capacity to make such a detailed confession. Owing to serious developmental delays, Brown has the intellect of a seven-year-old. He can’t tell time, yet the confession purportedly outlined his actions down to the minute. He can’t get past the letter “K” when reciting the alphabet. Additionally, Brown’s vocabulary and grammar didn’t match those used in the confession. One of his lawyers, Kelley DeAngelis, recalled that Brown spoke in phrases, rather than complete sentences.
By the time of a 2005 hearing, Brown’s doctors had joined Brown’s legal team in openly sounding alarms about the case. At that hearing, Robert Rollins, head of the forensic psychiatry unit at Dorothea Dix, testified that the confession was “too educated, too sophisticated, too relevant, (and) too cohesive” to have come from Brown.
Finally, in 2007, Brown’s lawyers sought a writ of habeas corpus from Orlando Hudson, a judge from Durham. At this hearing, Dorothea Dix forensics chief Mark Hazelrigg offered a sworn statement that pronounced the confession bogus. Hazelrigg testified that given Brown’s “limited vocabulary” and use of “simple and repetitive” speech, he could not possibly have made this statement. Hazelrigg reiterated this on the stand, testifying that the confession was not written “in a language that is typical or even possible for Mr. Brown to make on his own.”
This was enough for Hudson to throw out the confession and order Brown’s release. In his ruling, the judge noted that Brown could have been stuck in a mental hospital for the rest of his life in a fruitless effort to clear him competent to stand trial. The judge concluded that the confession didn’t provide enough evidence that Brown was a killer, and without it, there was not enough “convincing evidence” to justify keeping him in custody. In 2012, Brown was awarded $9.3 million in restitution, which is tied up in a trust that allows him to retain Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid.
In hindsight, serious questions had been raised about the legitimacy of Brown’s arrest almost from the start. In determining that he was not competent to stand trial, Rollins, from the state hospital, had argued that Brown didn’t have the mental capacity to waive his right to an attorney and speak with Isley. If Brown wasn’t capable of understanding his rights, let alone signing them away, how in the world could that confession have been legitimate?
But there’s more: Isley took Brown’s statement in first-person, even though SBI policy requires statements to be taken in third-person. Additionally, Isley has admitted to taking no notes during the two hours he was with Brown. This circumstantial evidence strongly backs up what Brown’s attorneys have maintained for some time: A man with developmental delays spent 14 years in legal limbo because a dishonest cop put words into his mouth.
Yet, as of this writing, Isley has yet to answer for it, because the statute of limitations has long since run out. It doesn’t matter that there is enough evidence to suggest that Brown should have been released years earlier—and that Isley should have been the one before a judge.
Another ghastly situation played out a year before Brown’s ordeal began. In 1991, Darryl Howard was arrested for killing Doris Washington and her daughter, Nishonda, then setting the Washingtons’ apartment on fire. He was convicted at a 1995 trial for murder and arson, and sentenced to 80 years in prison. However, in 2016, Judge Hudson threw out the convictions after it became clear that they were riddled with a staggering list of police and prosecutorial misconduct.
Lawyers for The Innocence Project revealed that prosecutors at Howard’s trial never told defense lawyers about DNA evidence that excluded Howard. That evidence was only discovered in 2010, and suggested that the real killer was Jermeck Jones. At the time, Jones was 15 years old and a member of the New York Boys, a violent drug-dealing gang with a habit, like many crime organizations, of using minors for violent crimes since they’re less likely to get harsh sentences. Despite this, then-Durham County DA Tracey Cline refused to reopen the case, in a flagrant violation of her oath to protect the innocent.
Hudson concluded in 2014 that the DNA evidence would have raised serious doubts about the convictions of Howard, which made their ultimate dismissal all but inevitable. Watch Howard talk about his ordeal with students at New York University here.
Realizing they had no chance in court, prosecutors opted not to retry the case; Howard was pardoned by Gov. Roy Cooper in Apr. 2021. By then, Howard had already filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Durham. He claimed that the lead detective on that case, Darryl Dowdy, fabricated and withheld evidence. In the course of the suit, evidence then came to light that revealed outright criminal behavior.
Dowdy built his initial case heavily on a statement from Angela Southerland. According to an interview transcript, Southerland was standing outside when Howard barged into Washington’s apartment and beat her up, before killing both her and her daughter and setting the apartment ablaze. According to this telling of events, Howard had previously threatened to kill Washington if she didn’t come up with his drugs or money. At Howard’s trial, Southerland refused to answer questions, leading prosecutors to treat her as a hostile witness and read out her statement in lieu of testimony.
But in a video deposition for Howard’s civil suit, Southerland, now known as Angela Oliver, detonated a bombshell when Howard’s lawyers had to read her 1992 statement for her—because she could only read at a third-grade level. Oliver, who is bipolar and schizophrenic, also didn’t remember giving the statement or taking part in Howard’s trial. She even denied witnessing the murders, saying that she only implicated Howard for fear of being thrown in jail for sex work.
The original tape of Dowdy’s interview with Oliver has long since disappeared, but per the transcript’s timestamps, it took more than 46 minutes to record an interview that only lasted 10 minutes. Howard’s attorneys claimed that was because Dowdy frequently stopped recording to feed Oliver information. They also claimed that Dowdy fed information to other informants so their testimony would also implicate Howard.
In Nov. 2021, a jury awarded Howard $6 million in damages, a fraction of the $48 million Howard had sought. Somehow, it feels like it isn’t nearly enough. An innocent man spent 20 years in prison in part because a cop put words in the mouth of a mentally ill, developmentally delayed woman. And yet, because of the statute of limitations, Dowdy may never face justice for it, even though his actions were not only indisputably criminal, but violated every standard of decency. Additionally, Dowdy’s misdeeds may have kept the real perpetrator, Jones, from answering for it at trial.
There is overwhelming evidence that people had years stolen from them because of criminal behavior on the part of officers who disgraced their badges. Yet, there is no way at present for these dishonest cops to face justice themselves. But what can be done?
According to years of precedent, statutes of limitations don’t apply in civil cases when it can be proven that a defendant engages in fraudulent acts. This lack of a ticking clock should be the standard at the criminal level as well. For one thing, many defendants can’t afford to hire a lawyer, forcing them to rely on public defenders. Many public defenders simply don’t have the time to provide the “reasonably effective defense” required by the Constitution. The Howard case is a stark example of this.
That case was prosecuted by Mike Nifong, who would later become infamous for his misconduct in the Duke lacrosse case—including, most seriously, withholding exculpatory DNA evidence from the players’ lawyers. Nifong’s misconduct came to light eight months after the players were indicted; by comparison, it took almost two decades for Howard’s lawyers to discover the DNA evidence that proved Howard was innocent. The Duke players’ families had the wherewithal to afford solid counsel. Had Howard been able to afford a stronger defense, the DNA evidence which exonerated him, as well as Dowdy’s misconduct, might have come to light far sooner.
While the fraudulent-act exception has long been enshrined in civil precedent, the courts have made clear that precedent is not enough to carve out such an exception for criminal cases. In September, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Heather Weyker, a St. Paul, Minnesota, police officer, could not be held liable for the numerous lies and misrepresentations she made when she had three women arrested on bogus sex-trafficking charges. Since Weyker was part of a federal task force, she was covered by an even broader definition of qualified immunity than the one that already applies to state and local cops.
The Eighth Circuit’s opinion, however, makes clear that it was not pleased with Weyker, noting that she “exaggerated or fabricated” evidence. However, it concluded that the proper remedy was legislative, not judicial. It did note that there are times when an unlawful arrest can amount to a Fourth Amendment violation. The case is currently before the Supreme Court.
The Eighth Circuit made it clear that Congress would be well within its rights to pass a law scrapping qualified immunity for unlawful arrests. Such a law, as a matter of course, should also allow for criminal prosecution for civil rights violations, since unlawful arrests are the very definition of a violation of rights under color of law. An arrest based on lies and misrepresentations by law enforcement is, by definition, unlawful. There seems to be a window for states to act as well, especially if Congress can’t summon the political will to act at the federal level.
Congress had a chance to provide that remedy before Weyker’s case came before the Eighth Circuit. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would have ended qualified immunity for police officers. Unfortunately, it’s bogged down in the Senate. In contrast, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, would actually codify qualified immunity.
One has to wonder if Jordan has the guts to tell the families of people who lost decades of their lives as a result of cops’ dishonest tactics that they shouldn’t have a window to get justice for their loved ones. As harsh as that may sound, that’s exactly what Jordan is saying with this bill. For years, Jordan has maintained that Republicans need to “#DoWhatWeSaid.” We hear what you’re saying, Jim—and we’re having none of it. And we must make sure the families of those who have suffered because of these lies hear it as well.
There are those who fear scrapping qualified immunity would open a can of worms. But how can there be any justice if the police can’t be held to account when their lies and misrepresentations bury innocent people in prison for years? No country that claims to be based on the rule of law can tolerate this. Congress or the states must act to send a message to the Scarcellas, Isleys, and Dowdys of the world: If you use your badge to destroy people’s lives in this way, you will have to answer for it in court.