Disgraced NYPD Det. Scarcella testifies in another wrongful murder conviction case
Nelson Cruz, a convicted murderer fighting in Brooklyn Supreme Court to prove his innocence and overturn his conviction, celebrated his 38th birthday Friday.
He spent the occasion listening to the testimony of a notoriously crooked detective who worked on his case.
Former Det. Louis Scarcella sat down at the witness stand Friday morning – with an attorney by his side – to testify about his role in investigating the March 1998 murder of Trevor Vieira, who was gunned down late at night in East New York.
Cruz was arrested and convicted of the murder, but he and his defense team say the real culprit was a ponytailed man that eyewitnesses say pulled the trigger.
Scarcella, an NYPD detective who served in the the ’80s and ’90s, is responsible for eight murder convictions that were ultimately overturned by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, which former DA Kenneth Thompson established in 2014 to investigate potentially wrongful convictions.
Throughout the morning’s proceedings, Scarcella dodged questions from Cruz’s lawyer, Justin Bonus.
“I can only tell you what I remember,” Scarcella said. “I was not the case detective. Steve Chmil was the case detective. I don’t remember being at the scene.”
In one characteristic exchange, Bonus grilled Scarcella on his memory of Cruz’s arrest.
“Do you remember being present in the precinct after Mr. Cruz’s arrest?” Bonus asked.
“No, sir,” Scarcella said.
“Do you remember being present during the lineup that was conducted with Mr. Cruz?”
Despite not remembering much of his work on Cruz’s case, Scarcella was able to provide details and specifics about the first murder he ever worked onas a detective. It took him 19 days to make an arrest and he recalled taking a print from a doorknob on that case to match to a suspect. That was back in 1981 at a Brooklyn pharmacy.
But that’s typical, Scarcella said. “When you catch your first homicide, you remember your first homicide,” he testified.
And as a detective in the ’80s and ’90s, when New York dealt with thousands of murders per year as opposed to a few hundred, Scarcella was a busy man.
“You caught 200 homicides?” Bonus asked.
“This is what I’ve been reading about myself. I believe I caught about 160 murders – that were mine.”
Cruz has been incarcerated since he was 17. He has accused Scarcella and his partner Stephen Chmil of coercing a confession in his case, as well as using a false witness.
Cruz’s lawyers are seeking to have his conviction thrown out based on newly discovered evidence, actual innocence, and ineffective assistance of counsel during his first trial.
William Harding testified Tuesday and Wednesday at the hearing that he was speaking with a woman on the corner of Pitkin Avenue at the time of the murder. He heard a commotion and saw a Black man and a Hispanic man with a ponytail fighting, he told the Brooklyn Eagle.
“A tall, skinny Hispanic male with a long ponytail that goes all the way down to his butt. That was the main distinctive thing about the individual,” Harding said.
Harding saw the man with the ponytail fire a few shots at Trevor Vieira. The ponytailed man then ran off, but was stopped by two uniformed cops. “They told him, ‘Freeze. Drop the gun.’ He dropped the gun. They took him and the gun in the car.”
Two police officers also saw a man with a ponytail shooting a gun, “the gun muzzle flashing,” according to the Cruz’s team’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.
Before Bonus ended his questioning, he asked Scarcella a final question. “Do you stand by all the investigations you conducted?”
“One-hundred-and-ten percent,” the retired detective said.
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