NEW YORK (AP) — Prosecutors are disavowing the convictions of three men who spent decades in prison for one of the most horrific crimes of New York’s violent 1990s — the murder of a clerk who was set on fire in a metro toll booth.
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 arson attack and a scene from the movie “Money Train”. .”
But Brooklyn prosecutors now plan to join defense attorneys in asking a judge on Friday to overturn the three men’s convictions. The confessions conflicted with evidence at and between the scene, and identifying witnesses was problematic, prosecutors said. Some of the men have long said they were coerced into confessing in the case, which had a lead detective who was later repeatedly accused of coercing confessions and setting up suspects.
“The findings of a comprehensive, multi-year reinvestigation of this case leave us unable to honor 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 harm done to these men by this failure of our system”.
Ellerbe, 44, was granted parole in 2020, but Malik and Irons, both 45, remained in prison.
Kaufman was working at night at a Brooklyn subway station on November 26, 1995, when assailants first tried to rob him, then threw gasoline into the cab and set it alight with matches while he begged, “Don’t turn it on! authorities said at the time. The stand exploded and Kaufman, 50, fled in flames. The married father died of his injuries two weeks later.
The attack looked like a scene from “Money Train,” an action movie released four days earlier. Bob Dole, then Senate Majority Leader and Republican presidential hopeful, spoke in the Senate to call for a boycott of the film.
Authorities have given mixed signals over the years about whether they believe the film inspired the murder.
Police searched for suspects and eventually came to question Irons, obtaining an admission that he was acting as a lookout. He implicated Malik and Ellerbe as the men who had set fire to the toll booth.
Since their arrest, Ellerbe and Malik have argued they were coerced into making a false confession, with Malik saying Detective Louis Scarcella yelled at him and hit his head in a locker. Scarcella testified that he swore, pounded a table and tried to scare Malik, then 18, but did not beat him.
Gonzalez’s office said its review revealed that Scarcella and her partner provided Irons with important crime scene details – details that prosecutors later used at trial to claim his confession was so specific that they had to be true. But it included clearly dubious claims — for example, that he could have seen his supposed accomplices jump into a getaway car, despite it being parked a block away and around the corner, prosecutors said.
At the time, Scarcella was a star Brooklyn detective in a city reeling from crime. But after questions mounted about his tactics, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office in 2013 began reviewing dozens of cases he had worked on.
Scarcella, who retired in 2000, has denied any wrongdoing. While more than a dozen convictions in his cases have been overturned, prosecutors have upheld dozens more.