Another Man Freed as Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office Reviews Cases
In Brooklyn, Scarcella’s Cases Continue to Face Review
By STEPHANIE CLIFFORD
JUNE 3, 2014
On a rain-drenched night in the summer of 1997, Sherwin Gibbons was shot dead, murdered as he sipped a beer in the vestibule of a building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
It was, law enforcement officials said at the time, a case of mistaken retribution: Someone had stolen a gold chain at a dice game; someone had to pay, and someone did — even if Mr. Gibbons was not the intended target. A suspect, Roger Logan, was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the murder.
Almost 17 years later, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office took on the task of discovering what really happened in the vestibule, at 373 Chauncey Street, on that July 24.
Detectives had retired. Witnesses had scattered to the wind. The police and prosecution files were gathering dust. The street where the murder took place, then crime-ridden, had become a pleasant middle-class block. Upstate, Mr. Logan, who had just turned 53, was in year 17 of his sentence.
Mr. Logan’s life, though he was living it in Clinton Correctional Facility upstate, had gone on. His parents and little brother had died. And his young daughters now had children of their own.
Mr. Logan’s is one of 90 murder convictions that the district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, and his office are examining in a massive undertaking that prosecutors, defense lawyers and the incarcerated around the country are watching.
Conviction review units were first popularized by Dallas in 2007, and have spread nationwide: Philadelphia and Cleveland announced such units in April, and district attorneys in Manhattan and Chicago, among others, also have them. The growth has come in part because of problematic prosecutions and police work during high-crime eras, but also because district attorneys found that these units brought political support.
Last year, there were a record 87 exonerations nationally, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, and the pace this year could exceed that.
Brooklyn’s task is enormous. It is looking at not only all 57 cases involving a retired detective, Louis Scarcella, whose methods have come under attack, but at dozens of other cases — mostly from the gunshot-spackled 1980s and 1990s, when Brooklyn averaged 600 homicides a year, according to Mr. Thompson.
“Brooklyn is an outlier — the resources and the number of cases they’re taking on have no parallels,” said Samuel R. Gross, a University of Michigan professor who runs the exonerations registry.
In the first six months of this year, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office vacated the convictions of six men, earning praise from defense lawyers and prisoners’ advocates. But not every case will turn out that way; this week, the office intends to announce that it plans to stand by 11 of the convictions obtained by Mr. Scarcella.
“Detective Scarcella played a very small role in these cases, did not generate an incriminating statement from these defendants, and in many cases, the defendants themselves don’t allege the detective or the prosecutors did anything wrong,” Mr. Thompson said.
When Mr. Thompson took office, there were two lawyers on the review unit; he has since assigned 10 assistant district attorneys and three detective investigators to it.
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., a Harvard Law professor who directs the criminal justice institute there, is a consultant to the district attorney on the design and operations of the unit; a panel of three independent lawyers reviews the unit’s recommendations before Mr. Thompson makes the final decisions. The effort costs $1.1 million a year.
In the six cases that Mr. Thompson’s office has vacated so far, the unit found fairly solid evidence showing the men should not have been convicted. Two were overturned based on DNA evidence; three because the testimony of a crack-addicted witness who was frequently used by Mr. Scarcella was discredited; and the sixth was based on a receipt and police reports showing that the defendant was, as he had always claimed, in Florida during the murder.
The bulk of the remaining cases, generally speaking, are more challenging. Proof of actual innocence is rare, but in many cases, the unit is finding that the police work — or the trial — was so badly tangled that the defendant would not have been convicted today.
“The duty of a prosecutor is to do justice, not just to get convictions,” Mr. Thompson said, adding that he wanted to “restore the faith that people have in our criminal justice system.”
Mr. Thompson said the review would also help his office identify common characteristics of problematic cases, to help “avoid wrongful conviction going forward.”
Mr. Logan had always maintained his innocence. From prison, he heard about the scrutiny of the methods of Mr. Scarcella, who had worked on his case; acting without a lawyer, he wrote the district attorney’s office to ask them to take a second look. (Even without the letter, the unit would have revisited the case as part of its comprehensive review of all the convictions involving Mr. Scarcella.)
When Mr. Logan’s case was tried, the prosecution argued that he had been involved in a local dice game the day before; his gold chain had been stolen, and the shooting on July 24 was in retaliation.
The prosecution’s case was based largely on an eyewitness named Aisha Jones.
On the day of the murder, Ms. Jones said, she was on the street when she saw Mr. Logan kick open the vestibule door and start shooting. She ran to her apartment building, hurried upstairs and looked out her window to see Mr. Logan firing the final shots. She said she heard about 10 shots in quick succession.
She identified Mr. Logan in a police lineup, but a judge ruled that inadmissible at trial, because the lineup had people of such different races and heights that it put a “spotlight” on Mr. Logan, the judge said.
The judge then held a hearing to see if Ms. Jones had enough information to identify Mr. Logan through other means. Ms. Jones testified that she had seen him the afternoon before the murder at that dice game, and had also seen him several times on the day of the murder, beginning around noon. Based on that, the judge allowed an in-court identification; there, Ms. Jones essentially said, sits the killer.
The conviction-review lawyer noticed something suspicious as he studied the files: a rap sheet for Ms. Jones. She was arrested at 4:30 p.m. on July 23, the day before the murder.
The lawyer tracked down prosecution, central-booking and court records. They showed Ms. Jones was in police custody from her arrest until she was released the next day, July 24. The earliest she could have been free was 7 p.m.
The timing of her being in police custody weakened her testimony; she could not, for example, have seen Mr. Logan “all day” on July 24, when Mr. Gibbons was killed. Had this been disclosed during trial, the judge most likely would not have allowed her to identify Mr. Logan in court, Mr. Sullivan said.
The lawyer and an investigator then re-interviewed the four people, other than Mr. Gibbons, who were in the vestibule at the time of the shooting.
The witnesses said the dice game had occurred a few days before the murder, and backed up what Mr. Logan had always claimed: his chain had been robbed, he had gotten it back, and he felt he and the robbers were square. (Two of those witnesses were the self-admitted robbers.) Of the four witnesses, only one put Mr. Logan at the crime scene at the time, but he said that he did not see Mr. Logan shoot anyone.
The lawyer and the investigator went to 373 Chauncey Street, and re-enacted Ms. Jones’s path from the crime scene to her apartment. As the investigator stood in the lobby and shouted “Pop-Pop-Pop,” the lawyer tried to run from the street to where Ms. Jones was living at the time.
“The person would have had to be extraordinarily fast,” Mr. Sullivan said, to make it upstairs to witness the final shots. “I’m stopping short of saying it’s a physical impossibility,” he added.
Detectives found Ms. Jones in southern Pennsylvania. She insisted she was out from jail in time to see the day unfold, and explained that she was a high-school track athlete. Investigators noted that she was 5 feet 6 inches tall and about 170 pounds at the time of the shooting. She also changed her story, saying she had seen the whole shooting from the street.
The unit put together a report on the case, and sent the report to the three panel members: Bernard W. Nussbaum, a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; Jennifer G. Rodgers, a former senior New York City prosecutor who is now a professor at Columbia University; and Gary S. Villanueva, a former Brooklyn homicide prosecutor who is now a defense lawyer.
The report recommended that Mr. Logan be released; Mr. Thompson concurred. On Tuesday morning, guards at the prison told Mr. Logan to gather his things: he was heading to court in Brooklyn, and he might not be coming back.
By Tuesday afternoon, after a judge granted the motion by the district attorney’s office to vacate the conviction, Mr. Logan walked out of court a free man.
“They told me maybe an hour ago that I’d been exonerated,” Mr. Logan said after the hearing. “I never had this feeling before. I’ve been waiting for this day for 17 and a half years.”
||Truth in Justice