3 jailed for 1995 Fiery subway murder are exonerated

The murder was shocking even for a New York City awash in violence at the time.

At around 1:00 a.m. on November 26, 1995, two men approached a subway coin-operated kiosk in Brooklyn, poured gasoline through the slot, and lit a book of matches. The resulting explosion leveled the structure and sent the clerk flying inside, his body in flames. He died two weeks later.

Three teenagers, Vincent Ellerbe, James Irons and Thomas Malik, later confessed to the crime, were convicted of second degree murder and were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

A state court judge on Friday cleared the three, now much older, at the request of the Brooklyn District Attorney, who said his office determined the confessions were false and were coerced by detectives whose work in dozens of other cases has been noted. meticulous examination.

“The findings of a comprehensive, multi-year re-investigation into this case leave us unable to sustain the convictions of the accused persons,” District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a news release, adding that there were ” serious problems with the evidence on which these convictions are based.

Quashing the convictions, the judge, Matthew J. D’Emic, freed Mr. Irons and Mr. Malik, both 45, from prison. Mr Ellerbe, 44, was released on parole in 2020.

Addressing a courtroom packed with parents and supporters, Mr Ellerbe delivered a moving account of his life behind bars. He said he had a 26-year-old daughter who grew up without him and he developed epilepsy in prison.

“Twenty-five I had to look in the mirror knowing I was in jail for something I had nothing to do with,” he said in a calm voice, sometimes hesitant. As he spoke, Mr. Malik’s wife, Michele, was openly crying.

“Penitentiary breaks you down or turns you into a monster,” Mr. Ellerbe added, “and I had to become something that I am not just to survive.”

Mr. Ellerbe was 17 when he was arrested; Mr. Irons and Mr. Malik were 18 years old. In addition to forcing them to confess, Mr. Gonzalez said, lead detectives Louis Scarcella and Stephen Chmil failed to disclose the flimsy nature of the witness identifications and ignored factual inconsistencies in the evidence and in the confessions of the witnesses. Young people.

For Mr Scarcella, who retired in 1999, the rejection of convictions was another stain on a career in which he led a unit that handled some of the most high-profile crimes and investigated more than 500 homicides by year.

His reputation began to crumble in 2013 after one of his most famous investigations – into the murder of a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood – unfolded amid defense claims that which he had framed a suspect.

Despite Mr. Scarcella’s insistence that he had done nothing wrong, the district attorney’s office began a review of about 70 of his cases. The investigation has so far resulted in more than a dozen exonerations — about a third of the 33 the District Attorney’s Office Conviction Review Unit has generated since 2014 — and New York City has paid tens of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits stemming from cases in which he was involved.

Richard E. Signorelli, an attorney who represented Mr. Scarcella in such lawsuits, said the retired detective had “an exemplary career with the police department” and “unequivocally denies all charges of wrongdoing.” in that case”.

Police officials did not respond to a request for comment on the exonerations or a question about whether he plans to reopen his investigation into who killed the clerk, Harry Kaufman, a 22-year-old transit veteran year.

The murder of Mr Kaufman, 50, has reverberated far beyond New York, in part because it happened several days after the release of the film ‘Money Train’, which featured a scene depicting a similar crime.

The deadly assault, at the Kingston-Throop Avenues station in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, was one of seven such fires at coin-operated kiosks in the days following the film’s release.

Bob Dole, the Senate Majority Leader at the time and Republican presidential candidate, called for a boycott of the film following the attack, although authorities have never established whether it was inspired by fictional crime.

Speaking in court on Friday, Lori Glachman, an assistant district attorney, said Mr Kaufman had ‘worked overtime to earn money to send his son to college’ when he was killed in what she called “a heinous and heinous crime”. Still, she said, investigators had come to the “inevitable conclusion” that the convictions “cannot stand”.

Mr Irons’ solicitor, David Shanies, said police subjected his client to “threats, lies, sleep deprivation and physical abuse”. And, while he thanked the district attorney’s office for its work, he also criticized it for a “carefully tailored” set of findings that only discredited the police, keeping prosecutors’ conduct silent.

A spokesman for Mr. Gonzalez, Oren Yaniv, said the review found no violations of rules requiring prosecutors to share exculpatory information with defense attorneys.

Ronald L. Kuby, who represented Mr. Malik at trial and in his quest for exoneration, said Friday that forced confessions of the type that Mr. Scarcella and Mr. Chmil were accused of extracting in the case would be little likely now because such interviews are filmed.

That and other criminal justice reforms in the years that followed, he said, would have spared his clients, so “the real people who murdered Harry Kaufman may have been captured.”

Reached by phone on Friday, Mr. Kaufman’s widow and son expressed a series of emotions over the turn of events, which they said they were not informed of until Thursday.

“If they didn’t, who did? Mr Kaufman’s son, Adrian, said, adding that he was skeptical that anyone else was charged with the murder. “I don’t think justice will be served for his family.”

Her mother, Stella Kaufman, echoed that sentiment.

“Everyone wants to know how I feel,” she said. “I feel like there’s no justice for Harry.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.

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