A woman spent a decade behind bars after a disgraced Brooklyn cop secured a false murder confession from her, the borough’s top lawyer says.
A Brooklyn judge on Tuesday cleared Vanessa Gathers for the 1992 death of an elderly Crown Heights man, after the district attorney’s investigation into the cases of notorious former homicide detective Louis Scarcella found this was yet another one that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
“I have conclude that, in the interest of justice, the manslaughter conviction obtained against Vanessa Gathers should not stand and she should be given back her good name,” said Brooklyn’s attorney-in-chief Ken Thompson.
Scarcella, then investigating homicides under former District Attorney Charles Hynes, elicited a signed confession from Gathers five years after someone fatally beat 71-year-old Michael Shaw in his Crown Heights apartment. The officer had picked Gathers out on the street years earlier because she fit the description of one of the assailants, though she denied any involvement at the time.
A jury subsequently convicted Gathers of manslaughter in 1998 — though she claimed her earlier admission was coerced, and it was the sole piece of evidence against her — and she spent 10 years in the slammer before being getting out on parole in 2007.
Thompson now says the confession was riddled with glaring inconsistencies and should not have resulted in a guilty verdict — Gathers could not clearly explain her role in the assault that led to Shaw’s death, nor did she seem to know much about what happened that day at all, he said.
Gathers walked free on Feb. 23 as the first woman to be exonerated by Thompson’s Convictions Review Unit — a special team that re-visits old convictions that seem to hang on tenuous evidence.
The unit is digging into dozens of convictions Scarcella was involved in. Once a hot-shot renowned for putting away criminals during the city’s seedier days, the detective’s investigations have since come under heavy scrutiny, with accusations that he coached witnesses, induced false confessions, and hid evidence.
Thompson has so far overturned seven convictions attached to Scarcella, while his team has upheld 32 of the cop’s past convictions.
Unit agents reopening old cases pass along their recommendations on the conviction to a panel of attorneys unaffiliated with the District Attorney’s office to review the case with fresh eyes, a rep explained, and the panel then passes along its take to Thompson himself, who may then appeal a judge to overturn the conviction.