NEW YORK – A single New York City police detective accused of trying to close murder cases by concocting false witness testimony and coercing confessions has cost taxpayers US$110 million (S$147 million) in settlements to more than a dozen people whose convictions were overturned after some had spent decades in prison.
People investigated by the former detective, Mr Louis N Scarcella, have already received a total of US$73.1 million in settlements from New York City and another US$36.9 million from the state, according to the city and state comptroller offices.
The payouts are expected to rise by tens of millions more, because the men cleared last year of burning a subway token clerk alive in 1995 have filed claims against the state.
The US$110 million went to 14 defendants, including a woman who died a few years after her release, a man who was just 14 when he was arrested on murder charges and a man whose settlement went to his mother because he died in prison at age 37. One man, released from prison after 23 years, had a severe heart attack two days later.
Mr Scarcella has not been charged with any crimes. But no other New York Police Department officer has ever come close to costing taxpayers as much, lawyers involved in the cases say.
Experts in wrongful convictions say the sum is “staggering,” and puts Mr Scarcella in the company of just a handful of other police officers in Chicago and Philadelphia accused of rigging dozens of cases, costing millions.
In New York, a city with 36,000 police officers, records show that Mr Scarcella’s cases represent about 15 per cent of the nearly US$500 million the city spent on reversed convictions between 2014 and 2022. The city often settles out of court to avoid the potential of a bigger payout at trial.
“While many police officers in New York City history have made excessive amounts of overtime, no police officer in the history of New York and quite possibly the history of policing has cost taxpayers over $100 million for his misconduct,” said Mr Ronald Kuby, a civil rights lawyer who has won settlements in three Scarcella cases. “And there’s more to come.”
Mr Scarcella, now 72, was a detective in the Brooklyn North homicide squad in the 1980s and ’90s, when the crack epidemic sent the city’s homicide rate soaring.
A cigar-smoking legend known as “the closer,” Mr Scarcella, who retired in 1999, had a reputation for solving murder cases that had stymied his colleagues. By his own count, he led at least 175 cases and helped with 175 more.
A Navy veteran who moonlighted as a Coney Island carnival barker, he joined the police force in 1973, following in his father’s footsteps. His confidence and swagger landed him on “Dr. Phil,” where he boasted about his ability to extract confessions from suspects. But defense lawyers and even some colleagues wondered about his methods.
For years, defense lawyers, including Mr Kuby, accused him of coaching witnesses, sometimes under threat, and not just coercing false confessions but inventing them. Confessions that defendants in different cases later denied offering sometimes contained identical language, The New York Times found.
Police and court records documented how witnesses changed their accounts after Mr Scarcella met with them.
But Scarcella’s work did not come under fire publicly until 2013, after a witness came forward to say a detective told him which suspect to pick out of a police lineup for the 1990 murder of a Brooklyn rabbi.
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