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Workers Vanguard No. 1047

30 May 2014

NYPD Frame-Up Machine

Earlier this month, three victims of the New York Police Department’s racist frame-up machine were exonerated. Robert Hill, Darryl Austin and Alvena Jennette were half brothers whose lives were destroyed through the combined efforts of cops and prosecutors. A black man from Crown Heights who suffers from multiple sclerosis, Hill spent the last 25 years behind bars for a murder in the late 1980s that he did not commit. The other two brothers were falsely convicted for a separate murder and locked away in prison hell, where Austin died 14 years ago at the age of 37 and Jennette spent 21 years until he was paroled in 2007. As Pierre Sussman, a civil rights lawyer who represents the brothers, stated: “This is a bittersweet result for a family devastated by the criminal justice system. While Mr. Hill is gaining his freedom and his brother Alvena recovering his good name, their brother Darryl died alone in a jail cell” (New York Times, 6 May).

At the center of this outrage is NYPD detective Louis Scarcella. His methods as a member of the Brooklyn North homicide squad (which covers Crown Heights, Bushwick, East New York and other poor, mainly black neighborhoods) from 1987 until he retired in 1999 have provided grist for a year-long New York Times exposé that unearthed the details of the frame-up of the brothers. Getting convictions in at least 350 cases over this period, Scarcella built a reputation of solving crimes that nobody else could, some of them years old. He was, according to the New York Times (8 April), “one of the most successful detectives in New York City history.”

The secret to his success was simple. In the words of the fictional Bronx assistant district attorney Larry Kramer, a character in Tom Wolfe’s biting novel Bonfire of the Vanities about greed and racism in 1980s New York: “What I do for a living is, I pack blacks and Latins off to jail.” This reality is all too familiar to many city residents. The cops routinely round up whomever they can find, usually black or Latino, concoct some sort of evidence, beat out a confession and railroad the accused to prison. Case solved. Scarcella certainly did little to hide how he got the job done, including by producing witnesses like Teresa Gomez, a drug-addicted prostitute who supposedly saw crime after crime. Known by lawyers as “Louie’s go-to witness,” Gomez would feature at the trials of the three brothers.

Scarcella first attempted to get Hill convicted based on testimony from Gomez that she spotted him killing somebody in a crack den. Hill was acquitted after a private investigator showed that the closet door keyhole through which Gomez claimed to have witnessed the murder did not exist. Undeterred, the detective dragged Hill back to court over another alleged shooting, this time out on the street, which Gomez again purportedly watched unfold. On the stand, she admitted to lying at Hill’s first trial, got basic facts of the new crime wrong and was so belligerent that the judge threatened to strike her testimony. Nonetheless, Hill was convicted.

When it came to framing up Austin and Jennette in a murder case that had gone cold after some two years, Scarcella once again tapped Gomez to testify and once again she got basic facts wrong at the trial. No physical evidence was presented linking the accused to the crime. However, as with Hill, such “details” did not get in the way of a guilty verdict. Last month, the newly installed Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson disclosed that the police at the time knew witnesses saw somebody else commit the murder, but did not turn over this information to the defense lawyers as required by law. Soon after, the DA finally admitted that Hill, Jennette and Austin were innocent and asked the court to vacate their convictions.

These announcements were damage control by the Brooklyn DA’s office, itself a major part of the apparatus that churns out victims for the penitentiary. As one attorney for the now discredited detective observed, Scarcella’s arrests “were authorized by a senior prosecutor” and all “evidence was thoroughly vetted and continuously reviewed.” Under the glare of public scrutiny, former district attorney Charles Hynes, who had held the position beginning in 1989, directed the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) last May to investigate every murder conviction in which Scarcella was involved—some 57 in all. In September, amid ongoing fallout, Hynes lost the Democratic primary to Thompson, a black former federal prosecutor who promised to clean up the DA’s office. (After losing to Thompson in the primary, Hynes switched sides and ran in the November general election as a Republican—and lost to Thompson, again.)

Who will be investigating the investigators? A 22 June 2013 posting on the ProPublica investigative journalism Web site noted that Hynes had appointed one John O’Mara to head the CIU. O’Mara was deputy chief of the homicide unit when Scarcella worked there and later served as top prosecutor in that unit. The ProPublica piece further observed that two New York State judges, several accomplished lawyers at some of the city’s more respected firms, four senior officials in the Brooklyn DA’s office and no doubt many others “are linked in at least one, suddenly noteworthy way: they prosecuted cases over the last two decades with Louis Scarcella.” In an attempt to give the appearance of some distance from wrongdoing, Thompson brought in a Harvard law professor as the new chief of the now renamed Conviction Review Unit (CRU).

The CRU is currently examining 90 cases, including more than 20 not involving Scarcella. Despite all the fanfare surrounding it, for more than a year the CRU has dragged its feet. “They’re saying, wait, wait, wait. How long do you want people to wait?” Derrick Hamilton told the Daily News (6 April) about his attempt to clear his name of the murder for which he served 20 years before being paroled. The exoneration of Hill and his brothers was the first—and so far only—decision the CRU has made.

The city rulers and such bourgeois mouthpieces as the Times consider it safe to dig up dirt on Scarcella and Hynes now that those they ensnared have rotted for decades in prison. Any further exonerations resulting from the current investigation would be long overdue, and whatever damages are awarded to the wrongfully convicted would be far too little compensation for the very real crimes committed against them. However, the actual aim of this project is not to provide a modicum of justice, but to whitewash a legal system rooted in exploitation and oppression by pinning the blame on a few “rotten apples.” Organ​ized violence in furtherance of the rule and profits of the bourgeoisie is the very purpose of the capitalist state—the cops, prosecutors, courts and prisons. When the dust has settled over the Scarcella scandal, the capitalist masters and their media lackeys will pat themselves on the back for cleaning things up…and the machinery of repression will grind on.

Scarcella: No Aberration

Scarcella was not the “rogue detective” described by the Times. On the contrary, his frame-ups are but the tip of the iceberg in the NYPD, as with police departments across the U.S. Or as Jennette later put it, “There are probably thousands of cases like mine.” One such case is that of Jabbar Collins, a black man who served 16 years in prison on murder charges until he was released in 2010 once it came out that Michael Vecchione—a star prosecutor under Hynes—and the cops had invented, distorted and withheld evidence.

What set Scarcella apart was his zeal for convictions. He was especially known for getting confessions through violence. “After that kind of treatment,” defense attorney Ron Kuby told the New York Times almost 20 years ago regarding one of Scarcella’s victims, “I think he was ready to confess to any crime in the city” (19 November 1996). Scarcella has boasted that “there were cases where suspects talked to one detective and they got nothing, and they called me and I got statements. A lot of guys don’t know how to talk to people” (11 May 2013). If “talking to people” didn’t work, Scarcella manufactured witnesses. Prosecutors in Hynes’ office would take it from there.

Scarcella made his name in the frame-up of David Ranta, the first of the cases examined by the Times. Ranta was falsely convicted in the 1990 murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, an Auschwitz survivor and leader of the Satmar Hassidic sect, then as now an important Brooklyn voting bloc. During a botched robbery of a diamond courier in Williamsburg, thieves shot Werzberger in the head to take his car to escape. Then-mayor David Dinkins offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Hynes attended Werzberger’s funeral and vowed to bring the killer to justice. Scarcella took command of a 40-detective team.

After the original suspect died, Scarcella interviewed a convicted rapist, then in jail for several robberies. Aiming to cut a deal, he passed Scarcella the name of Alan Bloom, a drug-addicted acquaintance facing up to a century in jail for dozens of robberies. In exchange for immunity from Hynes for the murder and a reduced sentence for the robberies, Bloom “confessed” to Scarcella that he had participated in the diamond courier robbery and gave the cops what they wanted: the name of the supposed mastermind, a white drug-addicted unemployed printer, David Ranta. There was no physical evidence linking Ranta to the murder. The diamond courier testified that Ranta was “100 percent not” the robber. Four of five witnesses in the first lineup also did not identify Ranta.

To make his case, Scarcella claimed that Ranta had confessed, amazingly without even having been prompted, although the confession was not taped. Scarcella admitted he did not show witnesses photographs of other suspects. Meanwhile, Ranta had passed a polygraph test backing up his innocence. But the rabbi’s killing had become a big political issue, and someone had to go down. So Ranta was convicted and for more than 20 years languished behind bars. In March 2013, he was finally freed as part of the official cleanup in response to the Scarcella revelations, with the city agreeing to a $6.4 million settlement. The day after his release, Ranta suffered a massive heart attack.

The Scarcella-Hynes method is just one possible toxic cocktail of frame-ups, racism and violence. Southern towns and Northern metropolises alike are full of examples. Take Tulia, Texas. In 1999, some 10 percent of its black population was rounded up and jailed as part of the “war on drugs.” Most were finally released in 2003 after the whole operation was exposed as a grotesque frame-up. To the west in Albuquerque, New Mexico, police have shot 40 people since 2010.

In NYC’s poorest borough, the Bronx—where convictions are handed down in only 46 percent of jury trials, compared to rates between 71 and 88 percent elsewhere in the city—prosecutors favor other dirty tricks. Notably, they have resorted to dragging out trials so that defendants rot in Rikers Island for years. In January 2013, 73 percent of all Bronx felony cases exceeded time targets set by the courts. Prosecutors have taken vacations in the middle of trials and otherwise obstructed the supposed right to a “speedy trial,” which on paper is grounds for dismissal. Defendants routinely spend years in jail only to be let off, while those convicted often are sentenced to less than the time they spent waiting in jail for trial.

The State Cannot Serve Workers, Oppressed

It is not hard for Thompson to posture as a reformer, given how venal Hynes was as DA. But at the time of his election in 1989, Hynes also assumed the mantle of reform, having served as a special prosecutor going after police corruption and prosecuting white racists who attacked black youth Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, Queens, in 1986. Thompson showed his true colors as an attorney in the U.S. Treasury Department, where he played a key role in the cover-up “investigation” of the 1993 FBI/ATF massacre of over 80 men, women and children of the integrated Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, Texas.

The capitalist state functions the same under liberal Democrats as it does under right-wing Republicans, whatever the differences in rhetoric. The Scarcella-Hynes string of false convictions started under the administration of the racist pig Ed Koch, continued while black liberal David Dinkins ran City Hall and kept on going after Rudy Giuliani assumed office. In the first three months under new Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio, known as a critic of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, the total number of misdemeanor arrests in the city barely budged compared with the same period last year. His selection of one of Giuliani’s police commissioners, Bill Bratton, to head the department points to the continuity in the NYPD over the decades.

As elsewhere, in New York City during the 1980s and 1990s, the “war on drugs” meant open season on an entire generation of black ghetto youth, thrown on the scrap heap by the capitalist rulers. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in manufacturing and other sectors of the economy had been lost since the 1960s. The thugs in blue were unleashed on the streets. From the cop killing of black grandmother Eleanor Bumpers in her apartment in 1984 to the police torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in Brooklyn in 1997, the NYPD ran up a long record of racist brutality. So widespread is police terror that the city paid some $100 million in lawsuits during fiscal year 2011; such claims jumped by 20 percent the next year.

The Central Park Five may be the most infamous of these cases. The cops and courts—with the help of the bourgeois mediaframed up five black and Latino youths aged between 14 and 16 for the brutal rape of a 28-year-old bank executive out for a run in 1989. Only in 2002, after the confession of the actual rapist was confirmed by DNA evidence, were they exonerated, having served their entire sentences. (See “The Central Park Five and Racist Capitalist Injustice,” WV No. 1017, 8 February 2013).

Replicated in cities across the country, the “war on drugs” grotesquely found its foot soldiers in Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other black Democrats. Draconian mandatory minimum and “three strikes” sentencing laws, expanded use of the death penalty and a deep erosion of the rights of those accused of crimes were all results of this crusade. So too was the quadrupling of the prison population over the last four decades to over two million, the majority black and Latino. And the tortures of America’s dungeons are legion, from beatings at the hands of sadistic guards to solitary confinement. We demand the decriminalization of drugs as well as the abolition of all other laws against “crimes without victims”—prostitution, gambling, pornography, etc.

The all-sided repression and countless frame-ups from the outset of the “war on drugs” through today is proof positive that the capitalist state is the mailed fist of the ruling class and cannot be reformed to act in the interests of working people and the black masses. Hill, Jennette and Ranta deserve whatever recompense they can claw from the bourgeois courts. But true justice—for them and all the exploited and oppressed—will be done only when the capitalist order with its barbaric state institutions is shattered by a proletarian socialist revolution, establishing a society where those who labor rule.


Workers Vanguard No. 1047

WV 1047

30 May 2014


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