NEW YORK (AP) — Prosecutors have thrown out the convictions of three men who spent decades in prison for one of the most horrific crimes of violent 1990s New York: the murder of a clerk who was set on fire at a toll booth at the meter.
Vincent Ellerbe, James Irons and Thomas Malik confessed to and were convicted of murdering token seller Harry Kaufman in 1995. The case resonated from New York to Washington to Hollywood, after parallels were drawn between the deadly fire and a scene in the movie “MoneyTrain”. .”
But Brooklyn prosecutors now plan to join defense attorneys in asking a judge on Friday to throw out the three men’s convictions.
“The findings of a years-long exhaustive reinvestigation of this case leave us unable to uphold the convictions,” Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement. He cited “serious problems with the evidence on which these convictions are based” and acknowledged “the damage done to these men by this failure of our system.”
The confessions conflicted with evidence at the scene and with each other, and witness identification was problematic, prosecutors say. Some of the men have long said they were coerced to confess in the case, which had a lead detective who was later repeatedly accused of coercing confessions and framing suspects.
Ellerbe, 44, was paroled in 2020, but Malik and Irons, both 45, remain in prison. Messages seeking comment were sent to his attorneys.
Kaufman was working a night shift at a Brooklyn subway station on November 26, 1995, when attackers first tried to rob him, then poured gasoline into the booth and lit it with matches as he pleaded, “Don’t light it!” authorities said at the time. The cabin exploded and Kaufman, 50, ran out in flames. The married father died of his injuries two weeks later.
The attack somewhat resembled a scene from “Money Train,” an action movie that had been released four days earlier. Then-Senate Majority Leader and Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole took the floor in the Senate to call for a boycott of the film.
Authorities have given mixed signals over the years about whether they believed the film inspired the murder.
Police searched for suspects and eventually came to question Irons, eliciting a confession that he was acting as a vigilante. He implicated Malik and Ellerbe as the men who had set the toll booth on fire.
As of their arrests, Ellerbe and Malik maintained that they had been coerced into making false confessions, with Malik saying that Detective Louis Scarcella yelled at him and banged his head against a locker. Scarcella testified that he cursed, banged on a table and was trying to scare Malik, then 18, but did not hit him.
Gonzalez’s office said its review found that Scarcella and his partner provided important crime scene details to Irons, details that prosecutors used later in trial to argue that his confession was so specific that it had to be true. But he included clearly dubious claims, such as that he had been able to see his alleged accomplices get into a hit-and-run car, even though it was parked a block away and around a corner, prosecutors said.
At the time, Scarcella was a star homicide detective from Brooklyn in a city reeling from crime. But after questions mounted about her tactics, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office began in 2013 reviewing dozens of cases she had worked on.
Scarcella, who retired in 2000, has denied any wrongdoing. While more than a dozen convictions have been overturned in his case, prosecutors have supported many others.
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