A Brooklyn man imprisoned for more than two decades for a 1995 Clinton Hill murder was released Tuesday after a judge overturned his conviction — citing the work of two disgraced Brooklyn detectives in the case as the reason for her judgment.
Eliseo DeLeon was all smiles as he walked free — hugging family members and other men whose convictions have been overturned based on the detective work of Louis Scarcella and his partner Stephen Chmil. The partners, who were known in the ’80s and ’90s for securing confessions and making arrests in tough cases, have been discredited over the past few years for allegedly securing false confessions and manufacturing photo lineups.
“This is what we worked for. We worked for freedom,” DeLeon told reporters after he walked out of the courtroom, a free man.From prison, DeLeon filed his own motion to get his conviction overturned. Some of the motion was handwritten. While serving 24 years, most recently at Ulster County Jail, DeLeon studied law and got a college degree. Now that he is out, he says, he’ll try to pass the bar exam and help other incarcerated people get exonerated.
He is, however, still under indictment for murder, and the Brooklyn district attorney could still appeal Judge Dena Douglas’ ruling or retry DeLeon for the murder. After the conviction was overturned, prosecutors asked for $250,000 bail in DeLeon’s case. Judge Douglas set bail at $100,000, which DeLeon was able to meet. He changed out of his prison uniform and was out of handcuffs within the hour.
“We do not believe that the defendant established his innocence at the hearing and are confident we will prevail at an appeal or a potential retrial,” said a spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. “The defendant was identified by multiple witnesses who never recanted and he admitted his guilt on multiple occasions. However, we consented to his release on bail because he has served the majority of his sentence.”
DeLeon was convicted in 1996 of shooting and killing Fausto Cordero during an attempted robbery in Clinton Hill. He allegedly gave a confession at the 79th Precinct after the killing, for which Scarcella, his partner Stephen Chmil and one other detective were present. DeLeon denies ever confessing and later refused to give a videotaped confession.
DeLeon was identified by three different eyewitnesses, including the victim’s wife, who said she would never forget the face of the person who killed her husband. The eyewitnesses continue to stand by the identification. None of the witnesses have recanted.
“He is thrilled to be coming home to his family. I think if the DA’s office does anything except dismiss the indictment, then I don’t think they’re the progressives that they hold themselves out to be,” said DeLeon’s lawyer, Cary London. “Scarcella had everything to do with this. He took the confession. He led the investigation.”
When asked by reporters if he had a message for Scarcella and Chmil, DeLeon demurred.
“I have nothing to say to them. They going to live life and they have to deal with it. They’ll have to be judged by God. Not me,” he said.
In the last 10 years, Scarcella and Chmil’s work has come under fire for forced confessions and falsified evidence. The Brooklyn district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit has overturned eight murder convictions associated with Scarcella’s police work, though the CRU did not overturn DeLeon’s conviction.
At a June hearing on DeLeon’s case, Scarcella said he did not remember being present at the 79th Precinct for the confession, though he did not outright deny being there. While Scarcella was on the stand, London grilled him on his controversial practices as a cop.
“You don’t always abide by police rules?” London asked Scarcella — who used to carry two guns at a time — at one point.
“That’s a very, very gray area,” Scarcella responded.
Scarcella admitted to giving witnesses money along with his business card to get them to feed him information on crimes. He admitted to allowing incarcerated witnesses to leave jail with him on what were called “take-out orders,” during which, cops are permitted to take witnesses to crime scenes or the DA’s office. But Scarcella told London that during one take-out order, he sanctioned a sexual encounter between the incarcerated witness and a civilian.
Douglas cited Scarcella’s testimony at the hearing and his conduct as a detective as part of the reason behind her decision to overturn the conviction.
“Detective Scarcella admitted to violating police protocol in the transport of subjects,” she said. “Detective Scarcella and Chmil demonstrated a disregard for the law that greatly troubled the court.”
The ruling did not decide DeLeon’s innocence — just that the newly discovered evidence of Scarcella and Chmil’s work on the case would have affected a jury’s verdict.
“The court finds that the cumulative effects of the evidence created a probability that had such evidence been received at the trial, the verdict would have been favorable to the defendant,” Douglass said.
DeLeon is due back in court next Tuesday, when prosecutors will announce whether they plan to appeal the decision, retry him or toss the murder indictment altogether.
“I cannot imagine this case is getting overturned,” said defense attorney Michael Baum, who helped another man get his murder conviction overturned in a case related to Scarcella.
Until then, DeLeon is headed home.
As he walked out of the courthouse, with cameras following him and his family beside him, DeLeon quoted Martin Luther King Jr. “Free at last. Free at last.”