Rosean S. Hargrave, 40, Convicted 23 Years Ago for Murder Based on Evidence from Unscrupulous Brooklyn Detective Louis Scarcella, Is Ordered Freed from Prison

Rosean S. Hargrave leaving court in Brooklyn on Tuesday after a hearing at which his conviction for the murder of an off-duty correction officer was vacated. (Credit: Sam Hodgson for The New York Times)

More than two decades after Rosean S. Hargrave was convicted of murdering an off-duty correction officer in Brooklyn, a judge on Tuesday ordered him released from prison, saying Mr. Hargrave’s prosecution was based on deeply flawed detective work that “undermines our judicial system.”

Mr. Hargrave, surrounded by his family and friends as he left State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, was asked whether he had thought he would ever be free.

“I dreamt,” he said.

The prosecution of Mr. Hargrave was built on the work of the former detective Louis Scarcella and his partner, Stephen W. Chmil. It is one of dozens of cases that have come under review since accusations emerged that Mr. Scarcella once framed an innocent man. Six people have had their convictions overturned, one posthumously, since the Brooklyn district attorney’s office began its review in 2013.

But this is the first time that Mr. Scarcella’s investigative methods have come under direct judicial scrutiny, and Justice ShawnDya L. Simpson delivered a scathing review of his record.

Many of the cases under review date to an era when many neighborhoods were plagued by crime, with the city regularly registering well over 1,000 murders a year. It was in this environment that Mr. Scarcella made his name, gaining wide acclaim for solving murder cases.

Justice Simpson noted that Mr. Scarcella was something of “a legend” for getting so many convictions. “There’s a saying, when it’s too good to be true, it usually is,” she said.

Mr. Hargrave’s conviction, she said, was “based solely on identification of evidence by Detective Scarcella and Detective Chmil” and therefore “brings into question the due process and reliability in this trial.”

Justice Simpson said that if the case were tried today, there would most likely be a different outcome.  She also noted that since the time of the trial, no new evidence had emerged to support the prosecution, citing the lack of ballistics or serology testing, or a fingerprint match to identify Mr. Hargrave. “The scant evidence that convicted the defendant makes the newfound wrongdoing of Detective Scarcella significant,” Justice Simpson said.

Since the trial, she also said, “potentially exculpatory evidence” had been destroyed, further undermining the chances that Mr. Hargrave could find justice.  After the judge read her decision, Mr. Hargrave’s mother broke down in tears as others around her burst out with shouts of joy.

“Thank you, your honor!” his sister Monique Hargrave shouted. “Thank you, God.” Outside the courthouse, Mr. Hargrave’s mother, Shirley, was still trying to process the fact that her son would finally be set free.

“I have never been so happy in 23 years,” she said. “I’m just so glad it’s over, and I hope it never happens to anyone else.” During the proceeding, Mr. Hargrave sat stoically, despite the celebrations behind him. His lawyer, Pierre Sussman, embraced him in a long hug.

“This is the strongest condemnation from the court of Detective Scarcella and Detective Chmil,” Mr. Sussman said. “Mr. Hargrave went in at age 17, and he’s being released at age 40.”

Justice Simpson said that the district attorney’s office had 30 days to appeal the ruling but that if prosecutors did not present new evidence in that time, any new trial would have to rely on the flawed evidence gathered by the detectives. Mark Hale, the chief of the conviction review unit for the district attorney’s office, said prosecutors were reviewing the decision before deciding how to proceed.

The decision caps a long battle to win Mr. Hargrave’s freedom. The New York Times investigated Mr. Hargrave’s case as part of a series of articles examining Mr. Scarcella’s record.

In a September hearing on the motion to vacate the conviction, Mr. Hargrave’s lawyers argued that the case had problems that began with flawed work by Mr. Scarcella and continued through the trial.

Supporters of Mr. Hargrave at the hearing, the end of a long battle for his freedom. Now 40, he was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison at age 17. (Credit: Sam Hodgson for The New York Times) 

For instance, blood evidence was lost, making DNA testing impossible. And the case hinged on one witness: another correction officer who was in the car with the officer who was killed, in a 1991 shootout in Crown Heights.

According to testimony at the trial, the surviving officer, Robert E. Crosson, and the officer who was killed, Rolando Neischer, were sitting in a parked car when two men approached the vehicle on bicycles and ordered them to get out.  A gun battle followed, and Mr. Neischer was fatally wounded. Mr. Crosson identified Mr. Hargrave and John Dwayne Bunn as the killers, and the two were convicted.

Mr. Bunn, a juvenile at the time, was sentenced to nine years to life in prison. He was turned down for parole three times, then released in 2006. But he violated the requirements of his parole, was sent back to prison for a year and was released in 2009.  Mr. Bunn’s conviction was not covered in the motion decided on Tuesday; lawyers from the Exoneration Initiative said they would file a motion for his conviction to be overturned.

Mr. Bunn, who was in court on Tuesday, said he went to support Mr. Hargrave. It was only the second time the two men had seen each other since 2004, when they were both inmates at the Elmira Correctional Facility. There, they barely discussed their fates.

“In Elmira, our remedies had been exhausted,” Mr. Bunn said. “Our hope was low.” He wept when the judge ordered Mr. Hargrave released.

Nobody knows what the two have been through “besides me and him,” Mr. Bunn said. “This is a day I always wished for. There’s no better feeling. I still can’t believe it’s real.”

Mr. Hargrave had been sentenced to 30 years to life and was recently held at Southport Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison reserved for inmates with severe behavior problems.  In the hearing on the motion to vacate the conviction, Mr. Scarcella was called to testify and maintained that he did nothing wrong.

The Hargrave hearing in September was the first time the detective was called to testify about his past work. For more than an hour, while often saying he could not remember specific details, he defended his performance in the Hargrave case and in four other cases in which convictions have been vacated.

Mr. Hargrave bears at least one visible scar from his time in prison — a wound on his face that came from a fight with another inmate.  In an interview with The Times two years ago, Mr. Hargrave described his life for the past two decades as one of a fight to survive.

“It’s like being in a jungle with a bunch of lions,” he said. “If I got a spear, I got to protect myself.”

article by Marc Santora and Nate Schweber via nytimes.com

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