East New York

Disgraced Detective Louis Scarcella to testify at hearing on 1998 murder

March 26, 2019 Noah Goldberg
Former Detective Louis Scarcella will testify on Friday in the hearing of Nelson Cruz. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

A disgraced Brooklyn detective whose police work resulted in a slew of overturned murder convictions will testify Friday in a hearing that could clear yet another man of a decades-old murder charge, defense lawyers told the Brooklyn Eagle Tuesday.

Louis Scarcella will testify at the Brooklyn Supreme Court hearing of Nelson Cruz, who was convicted of murdering Trevor Vieira in East New York in March 1998.

Scarcella, an NYPD detective who served in the the ’80s and ’90s, is responsible for eight murder convictions overturned by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, which former DA Kenneth Thompson established in 2014 to investigate potentially wrongful convictions.

On the evening of March 28, 1998, two police officers were driving down Pitkin Avenue in East New York when they saw a man with a ponytail shooting a gun, “the gun muzzle flashing,” according to the defense’s 2016 motion.

Police apprehended Eduardo Rodriguez, the long-haired man that defense lawyers now say was the real killer, at the crime scene — but he was not charged with murder. Rodriguez told cops that Cruz was responsible.

“Of course Eduardo Rodriguez is going to say whoever, because he is the shooter,” Cruz’s lawyer Justin Bonus said Tuesday.

“Based on this erroneous identification by Rodriguez, detective Louis Scarcella and his partner Stephen Chmil, armed with tunnel vision, began building their case against Nelson Cruz,” Bonus wrote in a 2016 motion.

Cruz, a teenager at the time of his arrest, claims Scarcella and his partner forced a confession and that he’s innocent of the killing.

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Witnesses will testify that Cruz was at a neighborhood restaurant the night of the murder, according to the defense team. Others will say there was a different gunman who had a ponytail, Cruz’s defense team said.

“We have Mr. Cruz’s alibis. This is one long due process violation,” Bonus said when asking for a hearing in June.

Nelson Cruz’s wife, Ericka Cruz, waits outside Brooklyn Supreme Court for her husband’s hearing to begin. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg
Nelson Cruz’s wife, Ericka Cruz, waits outside Brooklyn Supreme Court for her husband’s hearing to begin. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg

Judge ShawnDya Simpson expressed her sympathy for the victims of Scarcella cases. “You know my compassion. My sympathy. I get your passion,” she told Bonus.

Cruz’s lawyers also said that detectives Scarcella and Chmil used a false witness, Andre Bellinger. The lawyers say Bellinger didn’t see the shooting.

Scarcella cases account for 32 percent of all of the Conviction Review Unit’s overturned murder convictions. The Brooklyn DA’s Office is still looking into approximately 30 additional cases Scarcella worked on.

Scarcella, a cigar-smoking detective at the height of the crack epidemic in New York City, was known for his brash tactics.

“Are there rules when it comes to homicide? No. No, there are none. I lie to them. I will use deception. The bad guys don’t play by the rules when they kill Ma and Pop,” Scarcella said on Dr. Phil in 2007. “I don’t play by the rules.”

Derrick Hamilton, a paralegal working on Cruz’s defense team, knows personally the pain of wrongful imprisonment. Hamilton was a convicted murderer who had his case overturned by the CRU due to evidence manufactured by Scarcella. He and Cruz met in prison.

Cruz’s health has been failing at Greenhaven Correctional Facility, said his wife, Ericka Cruz. “He had Bell’s Palsy and he may have MS. That’s what they keep testing him for,” Ericka said.

“I’m very anxious,” she said of the upcoming hearing. “It’s really overwhelming right now. We’re just hoping justice is served and he comes home.”

To prove their client’s innocence, Cruz’s lawyers plan to bring in at least 13 witnesses, including Det. Scarcella. The hearing is set to last through Friday.

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