Louie and Me

by

08/14/2022

Neighborhood: Downtown Brooklyn

“Mr. Hamm, this is Detective Scarcella. You’re the guy who only said one nice thing about me–that I’m ‘fit.’ ”

“It’s true!” I replied. 

“You were the big guy in the back, correct?” he said, referring to the Brooklyn courtroom where he testified in mid-May. 

“You could say that, sure,” I said, taking his jab. 

We then agreed to speak off-the-record. 

Our exchange captures some defining elements of Scarcella’s public persona. All of the wrongful convictions attributed to him notwithstanding, he remains proud and combative—and knows what people say about him. 

Calling him “fit” is not the only favorable thing I stated about Louie in my write-up of his mid-May appearance in the James Jenkins case. I also described him as “dapper” and “ready to spar,” which are central features of his character. 

Two words that don’t apply to Scarcella’s public self are remorseful and introspective. As his local newspaper recently noted, Louie “told the Advance/SIlive.com in 2013 that he’s done nothing wrong in his life.” 

Such is the provincialism of Lower-Borough residents that the headline in the Advance refers to Scarcella as an “ex-Staten Island detective.”  Louie, who grew up in Bensonhurst and Midwood, spent nearly his entire NYPD career in Brooklyn. 

It was 2013 when the first of Louie’s big cases, that of David Ranta, who served 23 years for a murder he didn’t commit, imploded. The New York Times broke open that case, making Scarcella a fixture in the headlines for the next several years. Yet even as there has been a flurry of activity in his cases since May, I have often been the only reporter in the courtroom. 

This past June, a judge overturned the 1990 conviction of crack-era kingpin Baby Sam Edmonson because of Scarcella’s instrumental role in recruiting a false witness. And in mid-July, the Brooklyn DA’s office issued a triple-exoneration in the 1995 subway token booth fire murder, the case that had made Louie a tabloid star. 

There are now 20 Scarcella cases that have resulted in overturned convictions, either by judges or the DA’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU). 

That adds up to over 200 years people have unjustly spent locked away upstate. The city has doled out more than $50 million in settlements, with many more lawsuits in the pipeline. And many of the actual killers went free. 

If not remorse, perhaps we might at least expect a bit of chagrin from Scarcella? Alas, that’s also not a quality outwardly exhibited by the defiant detective. 

The “not nice” stuff I wrote about Louie involved his uneven recollections of his cases—or what I called in a subsequent story his “selective amnesia” routine. In ordering a new trial for Baby Sam, Judge Vincent del Giudice deemed Louie’s testimony not credible, “due in large part to his inability to recall certain facts while adamantly testifying to others in order to bolster his credibility.” 

In its reports accompanying the recent triple exonerations, the CRU placed blame for the faulty convictions squarely on Scarcella and his partner Steven Chmil (with help from the DA’s Homicide Bureau). Before he died, token booth clerk Harry Kaufman told police there were two assailants. But Scarcella and Chmil hauled in three suspects who didn’t match Kaufman’s descriptions. 

On Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in the wake of the triple exonerations, Scarcella came back to court to complete his May testimony in the James Jenkins case. Given that the biggest case of his career had just collapsed, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Defiance, yes. But perhaps a bit of dejection? 

As a journalist and historian, I often consider myself to be a detective. The stakes are obviously a bit smaller, given that nothing I do will result in an innocent person going to prison. If I was found to have fabricated sources or stolen someone’s research, I can’t imagine holding my head high. 

But Louie is cut from a different cloth. Tailored and very tan, he moved swiftly through the courtroom, then flashed a big smile at the judge. Even if any of the upheaval stemming from his handiwork bothered him, he was determined not to let that show. Meanwhile, Louie’s memory of the Jenkins case had not improved. 

During one pause in the proceedings, the judge offered Scarcella the chance to stand up. Knowing that he was in the spotlight, Louie puffed out his chest while adjusting his belt. If nothing else, the dude remains in great shape. 

Postscript: 

Scarcella returned to court the week after the Jenkins hearing, this time to testify in the retrial of Eliseo Deleon. He again had a bout of amnesia, claiming not to remember arresting Deleon. But Louie reaffirmed that he “took pride” in his detective work in the 1980-90s, adding, “as I do today.”  

During the discussion of his other overturned cases, Scarcella mentioned that while he was a detective, he also moonlighted at Coney Island, running a carnival stand called Cat Rack. According to Coney Island historian Charles Denson, “It was a game where you threw softballs at stuffed targets on a rack. Knock three down and you get a prize.” 

Most carnival games at Coney Island and elsewhere award stuffed animals as prizes. But Louie has always played by his own set of rules.

*** 

Theodore Hamm covers criminal justice for the Indypendent. He is chair of the journalism program at St. Joseph’s University in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. 

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§ 2 Responses to “Louie and Me”

  • Pam Cytrynbaum says:

    Excellent piece! Every single case he touched must be overturned immediately. Exactly like the cases falsely closed by criminal cops Guevara, Watts and Jon Burge and his vicious Midnight Crew – overturn every last case, and make the cops individually and their unions pay the hundreds of millions owed to the exonerees and their families.

  • Alice says:

    These corrupt officers need to be charged with perjury, at the very least. If the statute of limitations has expired from the original wrongful conviction, they perjure themselves again at the post-conviction proceedings.

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