May 21, 2014

Jabbar Collins to Depose Disgraced Homicide Detective

Jabbar Collins (l) and Louis Scarcella.
Photo: Spencer Burnett; Steve White
A man who is currently suing the City of New York, former Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes, and other members of Hynes's office, for their role his wrongful conviction for murder, won an interesting skirmish in his civil suit yesterday.

Jabbar Collins languished in a New York State prison for 15 years for a murder he did not commit until his conviction was finally overturned by a federal judge, who lambasted the prosecutors for their "shameful" handling of his case. That the prosecutors finally agreed to dismiss the indictment against Collins, rather than face questioning at a hearing, further bothered the judge, who was upset by Hynes's continued insistence that he and his office had done nothing wrong. The Collins case turned into one of many cases where Hynes's staff appeared to pursue wrongful prosecutions long after it appeared they should be dropped, and contributed to Hynes being wiped out at the polls by Ken Thompson. (See L&N blog post here).

Convictions based on arrests by disgraced former NYPD homicide detective Louis Scarcella further hastened Hynes's departure. After the conviction of David Ranta was overturned (by which time Ranta had spent 23 years in prison), Hynes claimed that 50 other convictions would now be scrutinized by the DA's office. As Collins's attorney, Joel Rudin, pointed out at the time, such an investigation would require an enormous amount of labor hours by skilled attorneys. Doable? Sure, if Hynes was committed. More likely an empty political stunt? Absolutely. (See ABA Journal article here).

Anyway, while Scarcella was not involved in the criminal case against Collins, his homicide unit was. Rudin now wants to depose Scarcella to inquire into the unit's practices, and communications between the unit and the DA's office. Essentially, Collins and his lawyer want to see if there's evidence that the DA's office routinely looked away when detectives bent the rules, ignored Brady material, or otherwise engaged in conduct that would suggest that Collins's wrongful conviction was the inevitable result of misconduct by the DA, rather than some perfect storm.

The City (and Scarcella) fought against his deposition in the Collins case, arguing that Scarcella's knowledge was far too tangential to require him to appear. The real reason the deposition was sought, the City argued, was to generate publicity. If so, mission accomplished, as the story was in the local papers this morning. (See the NY Post, here, and the NY Law Journal (paywall) here).

Magistrate Judge Robert Levy ruled that the deposition can proceed, although he will likely limit any inquiry that goes too far astray from these general areas.

Given the abundance of lawsuits that are likely to proceed against Scarcella and the City of New York for the convictions of David Randa and others, the testimony as to both what Scarcella did and how the DA's office handled it will have tremendous import.

Civil rights attorneys ought to be paying close attention.

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