Retired NYPD Det. Louis Scarcella took the witness stand in a gray suit and red-striped tie, a small American flag pinned to his lapel.
Unseen but inescapable was the baggage brought by the once-acclaimed investigator to the retrial of Eliseo DeLeon, cleared 20 months ago for a June 1995 murder after a Brooklyn judge blasted Scarcella and partner Stephen Chmil for skirting the law to ensure his conviction.
“Everything in this case has been tainted, your honor — tainted by Scarcella, tainted by Chmil,” said defense lawyer Cary London, ripping the dubious duo in his closing argument on Thursday.
“The DA wants you to believe this was a good arrest with ample evidence ... We know what Scarcella and Chmil are capable of.”
London’s allegations came with a familiar ring: Three convictions linked to the detectives once compared to Gotham’s Batman and Robin were tossed just two weeks ago, bringing the total of reversals in their cases to a staggering 18.
The trio of defendants in the case spent a combined 79 years in jail for the 1995 torching of a Brooklyn token booth, with its clerk killed in the blaze.
DeLeon’s conviction was thrown out in November 2019, with the DA’s office opting for a retrial. The verdict will come at an Aug. 31 hearing where Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Dena Douglas, who overturned the earlier conviction, will deliver her decision in the bench trial.
Scarcella, whose exploits in the ‘80s and ‘90s made him a celebrity once welcomed as a guest by TV host Dr. Phil McGraw, remained resolute during his testimony that his role in the 27-year-old murder arrest was tangential at best.
The detective said he didn’t recall putting DeLeon in handcuffs or driving him to the precinct, and said he was not at the murder scene.
But London took Scarcella on a trip though his sordid past, revisiting past cases where the detective acknowledged lying to suspects: Telling one that he was identified by a witness as a crime suspect and another that there was damning DNA evidence when it was untrue.
Though Scarcella emphasized his role in the DeLeon case was minor, with Chmil assigned to investigate, the ruling tossing the guilty verdict pointedly said both detectives “played a significant role in the defendant’s arrest and the attendant police investigation.”
Scarcella testified that he was not in the room when DeLeon purportedly confessed to the killing, adding that he was doesn’t even recall what the exonerated defendant looked like.
“I don’t remember seeing him physically,” he testified. “Only the photo.”
But London challenged the claim: “Scarcella put the handcuffs on (DeLeon) ... Scarcella led the investigation. Scarcella and Chmil picked up the witness for the lineup.”
DeLeon, now 45, was just a teen when arrested and convicted for the fatal shooting of Fausto Cordero during an allegedly botched street robbery as the victim’s wife stood nearby.
He spent 24 years in prison, more than half his life, before his exoneration and release.
Chmil also took the witness stand to defend the investigation and conviction, insisting he stood by his work alongside Scarcella.
“Absolutely, 100%,” he said, suggesting the DA’s office threw the two detectives under the bus. But he also acknowledged, after reading an old police document, that two other suspects in the DeLeon case were identified by calls to the NYPD Crime Stoppers tip line.
Prosecutor Chow Xie, in his closing argument, insisted the defense’s focus on the two disgraced detectives was nothing more than legal misdirection.
“The defense counsel wants to make this case about Scarcella, Scarcella, Scarcella, Chmil, Chmil, Chmil,” said Xie. “Detective Scarcella played almost no role in this case.”
The assistant district attorney also mentioned Scarcella’s testimony about investigating more than 200 homicides before his 1999 retirement.
“Are all of them vacated?” asked Xie.
“No, no,” said Scarcella with a laugh.
At one point during Scarcella’s testimony, London asked the once-venerated detective if he prided himself “on being a good homicide detective in the ‘80s and ‘90s?”
“I still do,” replied Scarcella.