The New York City comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, has agreed to pay $17 million to settle three more claims based on wrongful criminal convictions, his office said on Sunday, part of an emerging strategy to resolve civil rights cases before they are formally filed as lawsuits in court.
The settlements were reached with three defendants whose cases involved Louis Scarcella, the retired homicide detective whose investigative tactics have come under question and whose cases are being reviewed by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
The men, Robert Hill, Alvena Jennette and Darryl Austin, who are half brothers, spent a combined total of 60 years in prison — one died there — before their convictions, made in the 1980s, were vacated by a judge in May. The office of Kenneth P. Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney, is examining 130 convictions, including 70 cases in which Mr. Scarcella played a key role. Most of the cases under review date to the crime-plagued 1980s and 1990s.
Mr. Stringer, in an interview, made it clear that the settlements were intended to help the family, but that he also believed that the city should avoid litigation in which it could, if found liable at trial, face exposure to high damages.
“The 1980s were a difficult time in our city’s history,” Mr. Stringer said, “and in a certain way, we are sort of unearthing the tangled history of that time period in our court system today.”
“Clearly, our heart goes out to those who have been wrongfully incarcerated,” he continued. “We are also very concerned about the impact these cases will have on the fiscal health of the city.”
The settlements are the third, fourth and fifth prelitigation deals in major civil rights cases reached by Mr. Stringer since he took office a year ago. The comptroller’s office traditionally settled other kinds of claims, like slip-and-falls or property damage, before they went to court, but left significant civil rights cases to the city’s Law Department, an agency under the mayor’s direction.
The two earlier prelitigation deals were a $6.4 million settlement last February with David Ranta, who was imprisoned for 23 years after being wrongfully convicted of murder, and a $2.25 million agreement in October with the family of Jerome Murdough, a homeless veteran who died at Rikers Island in an overheated jail cell.
Mr. Stringer said in December that he also hoped to settle a $75 million claim filed by the family of Eric Garner, an unarmed man who died last summer after an officer used a chokehold during a confrontation with the police on Staten Island.
The new strategy has had the effect of excluding the de Blasio administration from the settlement process in several high-profile cases. But Mr. Stringer, who as comptroller is the steward of the city’s investments and finances, made it clear that he is trying to strike a fair agreement where his office finds that claims have merit.
Mr. Stringer, alluding to Mr. Thompson’s review, added, “I am aware that we do have the potential for these cases coming to us over the next couple of years.”
In a statement, Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the Law Department, said that such settlements are within the comptroller’s authority. “Particularly in a case in which a district attorney has made an independent assessment that a criminal conviction should be vacated, an early resolution can be prudent and fair.”
The settlements announced on Sunday will pay $7.15 million to Mr. Hill, who spent about 27 years in prison until his release last year; $6 million to Mr. Jennette, who was released on parole in 2007 after about 20 years in prison; and $3.85 million to the estate of Mr. Austin, who died in prison in 2000 after 13 years there.
Mr. Hill and Mr. Jennette, who were incarcerated in other prisons, learned of their brother’s death through the mail. Louise Austin, a pastor in North Carolina — and the mother of all three men — stood in for Mr. Austin at the hearing in May when his conviction was vacated.
Pierre Sussman, the brothers’ lawyer, said that the quick resolution was in everyone’s best interest — the two surviving brothers are in their 50s, he said, and Mr. Hill has multiple sclerosis — and avoids potentially years of litigation. “They had no interest in going through that lengthy process,” he said.
Mr. Sussman, who had also represented Mr. Ranta, said the brothers’ settlements are higher per year than some of the wrongful-conviction cases that had been pursued in court. “That speaks to the strength of these cases, and that may be the Scarcella factor at work,” he said.
He said that the agreements “should not be seen as any level of forgiveness or resolution for Scarcella” on his clients’ part. Claims have also been filed against the state; they have not been resolved.
Mr. Scarcella, a Brooklyn homicide detective noted for his ability to close cases, used the same witness, a crack addict named Teresa Gomez, in the cases against the half brothers. She was a witness in six of Mr. Scarcella’s cases, and her testimony tended to contradict physical evidence and other witnesses’ accounts. Mr. Scarcella has denied any wrongdoing.
A 1985 murder had gone unsolved for two years until Mr. Scarcella was assigned to the case, and turned up Ms. Gomez, who named Mr. Austin and Mr. Jennette as the killers; they were convicted at trial. And she testified against Mr. Hill in two separate murder cases. A jury found him not guilty in the first case; in the second, a jury convicted him of a 1987 murder.
Mr. Hill and Mr. Jennette live in their family’s house in Crown Heights, which they are renovating, Mr. Sussman said. Mr. Hill spends most of his time dealing with his multiple sclerosis, while Mr. Jennette “has remained virtually unemployable because of the notoriety of this case and the fact that he was a convicted murderer up until May,” Mr. Sussman said.
With the claims being settled, there will be no lawsuits filed or trials held. Mr. Stringer acknowledged that the public record created by litigation was important. But in this particular case, he said, “a mother lost three children,” adding, “I think the family has done enough.”
article by Benjamin Weiser and Stephanie Clifford via nytimes.com