The Significance of Criminal Investigations to Justice

By Elena Tan

The New York Times reported a shocking revelation on 11 May 2013 that the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office would be reviewing around 50 murder cases assigned to acclaimed homicide detective Louis Scarcella in the 1980s to the 1990s.

While doubts about Scarcella’s methods have always existed, the present review was sparked off in March this year when David Ranta, who had spent 23 years in prison after being convicted for murdering a rabbi, was exonerated. The judge found this wrongful conviction to be premised on the flawed police work conducted by Scarcella and his partner, such as failing to pursue a more logical suspect, and removing violent criminals from jail to smoke crack cocaine and visit prostitutes in exchange for incriminating Ranta. This has since escalated into a series of other appalling accusations about Scarcella’s improper and dishonest investigative processes, including confronting suspects with incriminating statements that they did not make and of which he could not produce any actual interrogation notes (1989 case of Shabaka Shakur), and using intimidation tactics to force witnesses to make incriminating statements (1992 case of Ronald Pondexter).

‘the balancing exercise between social security and individual liberty is not one that should be left up to the investigative figures like Scarcella.’

What is particularly dubious about Scarcella’s investigative method is the recurrence of Teresa Gomez as an eyewitness for multiple murder trials, most prominently in two murder cases involving an individual named Robert Hill. In the first trial, Gomez claimed that she was hiding in a closet in a crack den and witnessed Hill’s killing of the victim through a keyhole. Hill was later acquitted as there was no such alleged keyhole in the closet door. In the second trial, Gomez claimed that she saw Hill shoot a man on a street corner before curiously hailing a cab and instructing the driver to send the wounded man to the hospital. Even though Gomez’s testimony contradicted various external evidences, such as the direction the shot was fired, the court accepted her incriminating statements and convicted Hill.

Martin Marshak, a defense lawyer who represented clients in several cases where Scarcella had allegedly threatened witnesses, opined that even though the New York Police Department (N.Y.P.D.) and prosecutors thought Scarcella was one of the best homicide detectives, it is disturbing that he did not “follow the rules” of investigation. In response to the above accusations, Scarcella commented that there are no rules to the investigation of homicide offences, as the “bad guys” would not “play by the rules” when they murder and ruin the lives of families. As such, it is Scarcella’s belief that it is justified for him to use deceptive means to obtain incriminating statements.

This author believes that the balancing exercise between social security and individual liberty is not one that should be left up to the investigative figures like Scarcella. While detectives should ideally aim to present courts with the most comprehensive evidence possible, it is only prudent for criminal investigations to follow standard procedures and be curtailed by levels of checks and balances. Procedural propriety is vital to the health of the criminal legal system, and is paramount in ensuring that cases are justly decided.

It is noteworthy that the Head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, John O’Mara, emphasised that the purpose of this review is to correct injustice and not to attribute blame for any possible wrongful convictions. It is only prudent to ensure that any alleged miscarriages of justice be taken seriously and that innocent individuals are not convicted of crimes they have not committed. Similarly, it is the protection of this fundamental purpose that led to the creation of Innocence Projects around the world. This author believes that this commitment towards the preservation of criminal justice, by law enforcement authorities and students alike, is praiseworthy and imperative in ensuring that justice, if ever unfortunately compromised, can be restored.

Elena Tan, 20, is a second-year student in the NUS Faculty of Law and a member of the Innocence Project.

This article is written in response to an article in the New York Times which can be found at this link: