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.
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.