Last week, Huwe Burton walked out of a Bronx courtroom an exonerated man, after having served 19 years in prison for the murder of his mother. Arrested at age 16, Mr. Burton was convicted based chiefly on what he and his lawyers insisted was a coerced, and false, confession. Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark touted her decision to vacate Mr. Burton’s conviction and “clear his name.” This case, given its parallels to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s recent experience with disgraced Detective Louis Scarcella, should serve as a call to action for Ms. Clark.
In March 2013, David Ranta’s exoneration led former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes to begin a comprehensive re-investigation of cases handled by the now-infamous Detective Scarcella. Faced with the public’s growing awareness of the problem of wrongful convictions; numerous reports of troubling behavior by the former detective; and an electoral challenge from Kenneth P. Thompson, who would ultimately unseat him; District Attorney Hynes charged his Conviction Integrity Unit with reviewing a large number of Scarcella-related convictions. District Attorney Thompson and his successor, current District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, have continued that effort, which thus far has resulted in a staggering 14 exonerations attributable to Detective Scarcella, with more likely to come. The systematic review of Mr. Scarcella’s work has uncovered troubling patterns by the detective and his colleagues, including the extraction of false confessions, subornation of perjury, and suppression of exculpatory evidence. That process was greatly facilitated by conviction review prosecutors’ working collaboratively with defense attorneys to investigate suspected wrongful convictions and, where appropriate, to correct them.
Mr. Burton’s recent exoneration highlights indicia of a similar pattern in the Bronx. The detectives responsible for Mr. Burton’s conviction – Frank Viggiano, Stanley Schiffman, and Sevelie Jones – are linked to other alarming allegations suggesting what may be a pattern of misconduct. Mr. Burton’s lawyers with the Innocence Project identified the case of Dennis Coss and Kelvin Parker, two young men from whom the same trio of Bronx detectives procured confessions that led to murder charges later dismissed after the confessions were exposed as false. Two of the three detectives – Viggiano and Schiffman – were also responsible for the conviction of Calvin Buari, another recent exoneree whose case involved subornation of perjury and suppression of exculpatory evidence. The connection of Mr. Burton’s case to Mr. Buari’s has not yet been reported by the media.
In the aftermath of Mr. Burton’s exoneration, District Attorney Clark evidently told the New York Times that her office would review other cases these detectives had worked on. She also told the Times, however, that what these detectives did to Mr. Burton “was not necessarily wrong” because “that is the way things were done then.”
District Attorney Clark now has the opportunity to demonstrate her commitment to the prevention and correction of wrongful convictions. Ms. Clark has already taken great strides in that regard, including her decision to hire wrongful conviction expert Seth Steed, who as deputy chief of the Bronx Conviction Integrity Unit was instrumental in the Burton exoneration, though he has since moved on the run the Neighborhood Defenders Services of Harlem’s criminal defense practice. By focusing on what Brooklyn has done right – in particular, the systematic review of convictions tied to investigators behind other known wrongful convictions, and a focus on cooperation with defense counsel – the Bronx may be able to right many more wrongs. Ms. Clark should now advance that process with the utmost haste and commitment.
David B. Shanies is a civil rights attorney in New York and has handled numerous cases involving wrongful convictions attributed to Detective Louis Scarcella, including those of Carlos Davis, Vanessa Gathers and Shawn Williams.