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City sued for malicious prosecution In Brooklyn murder case

Jay Schwitzman, president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association. Photo courtesy of Mr. Schwitzman's office

Former detective Louis Scarcella focus of lawsuit

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Having served over two decades behind bars for a murder he claims he did not commit and suffering a heart attack upon his release from prison, David Ranta intends to sue New York City and two detectives for alleged malicious prosecution.  Ranta is seeking $150 million in damages.

Ranta was charged and convicted for the 1990 murder of a diamond courier in Williamsburg. After investigations conducted by Ranta’s attorney and the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit found gaps in police paperwork and faulty witness testimony, the DA’s office believed the case against Ranta to have   “significantly eroded.” Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Miriam Cyrulnik ordered Ranta’s release in March.

The malicious prosecution notice of claim asserts that prior to Ranta’s arrest in 1990, Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella “coached a key identification witness,” incentivized another witness to provide “false testimony,” suppressed evidence, and lied under oath, to ensure that Ranta was arrested and ultimately convicted of the Williamsburg murder.

Malicious prosecution is generally a difficult case to win in New York. In addition to the accused having to have been acquitted of the charges, a primary element in a malicious prosecution case is that the arrest preceding trial was made with malicious intent.   Often claims of malicious prosecution are mistaken for an unfair trial assertion. There is a significant difference between the two.

Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Carol Amon explained the difference, on a federal level, in the 2012 decision of Morse v Spitzer. In that case, Amon writes that malicious prosecution actions stem from the accused’s right to “be free from baseless prosecution.” A violation of this right only occurs “when probable cause is lacking.”

In other words, for a malicious prosecution claim to succeed, the accused must show that the police had no probable cause for the arrest and that the arrest was made with malicious intent.

In Ranta’s case, it is being alleged that the arresting detective used false testimony and other invalid evidence prior to the arrest.  If it is determined that there was valid reason for the initial arrest, a malicious prosecution claim may fail.   

Probable cause, however, is not a defense to an unfair trial claim.  “Denial of a fair trial is when a police officer forwards false information to prosecutors,” Brooklyn attorney Richard Cardinale explained.

“When a police officer creates false information likely to influence a jury’s decision and forwards that information to prosecutors, he violates the accused’s right to a fair trial” Amon noted, citing supporting case law.

Detective Scarcella’s questionable actions in the Ranta case has caused Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes to reopen about 50 murder cases that Scarcella worked on and resulted in a guilty verdict. As Brooklyn criminal defense attorneys prepare to have some of their clients’ cases reviewed, some question how such alleged corruption by a police detective was allowed to continue for so long.  

The criminal justice system is “a beast of a system,” noted Brooklyn criminal defense attorney Leo Glickman. Glickman advises attorneys to “conduct your own investigation and try to get information from the sources the police are relying on,” as a way to prevent faulty police work from harming a defendant.  “If there are discrepancies they should be brought up to the jury.”

When it comes to questionable arrests and prosecutions, “The buck can stop at the District Attorney’s office,” Gluckman noted. “The DA’s office is supposed to try to get convictions but its main goal is to bring justice. The Assistant District Attorneys have to make the determination as to the creditability of the detectives.”

Jay Schwitzman, president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association, cautions against criticism of Brooklyn’s DA. “Charles Hynes is the one who solicited defense attorneys for cases they thought were wrongly brought,” Schwitzman told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Hynes came to the defense bar and introduced John O’Mara.”  In 2011, Hynes created the Conviction Integrity Unit to examine cases of possible wrongful convictions and appointed Executive Assistant District Attorney O’Mara to head the unit.

Calls to Ranta’s attorney Pierre Sussman were not immediately returned.

May 16, 2013 - 12:46pm


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