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‘In Prison for Something I Had Nothing to Do With’: Brooklyn Judge Overturns Convictions for Three Men Found Guilty In 1996 with ‘Questionable’ Police Tactics, False Confessions for Setting Subway Clerk on Fire

Three New York men who spent more than 25 years in prison for the fiery murder of a subway token clerk recently had their convictions vacated after prosecutors found evidence of misconduct by the lead detectives in the case.

Thomas Malik and James Irons were 18 years old, and Vincent Ellerbe was 17 years old when they confessed to trying to rob Harry Kaufman with three other accomplices before setting the booth on fire.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said on July 15 that the confessions were contradictory to the facts of the case. Nevertheless, a jury found the men guilty in late 1996 and sentenced them to 25 years to life in prison. Ellerbe was paroled in 2020.

“The horrific murder of Harry Kaufman shocked our city and devastated a loving family, but the findings of an exhaustive, years-long reinvestigation of this case leave us unable to stand by the convictions of those charged,” Gonzalez said. “Above all, my obligation is to do justice, and because of the serious problems with the evidence on which these convictions are based, we must move to vacate them and acknowledge the harm done to these men by this failure of our system.”

The conviction review report shows Kaufman refused to give up the tokens to the robbers, so one of the suspects poured gasoline from a clear plastic soda bottle into the coin slot, then lit a book of matches, causing the token booth to explode. Witnesses said Kaufman was blown out of the booth, and they saw three men running from the scene. Kaufman sustained burns on over 80 percent of his body and died two weeks later in December 1995.

Ellerbe, Malik and Irons were later identified by New York Police detectives as suspects in the case. However, Gonzalez’s Conviction Review Unit found that lead detectives Stephen Chmil and Louis Scarcella fed details of the crime to Irons during his interrogation. Prosecutors used those same details in court to validate Iron’s confession. Gonzalez’s office also found that parts of Irons’ confession were false.

The teenager said he was shot in the leg a year earlier when he was not. He said the gasoline was sprayed on the token booth door when a fire expert testified that the suspect poured it into the coin slot.

Ellerbe’s confession also had holes. He said that he sprayed his street name with gasoline on the front of the token booth with a spray bottle. But the review unit said there was no evidence that the arsonist used a spray bottle and it would not have been enough to set the booth on fire.

“I wasn’t an angel in the street. [But] like I told the parole board, like I told the judge at my sentencing, it wasn’t me,” Ellerbe, now 44, told Brooklyn Judge Matthew D’Emic during the hearing in which he overturned the convictions on July 15.

The conviction report shows that the witness who identified Malik as the suspect holding the bottle of gasoline had initially identified another man who turned out to be in Baltimore at the time of the crime. She was also wrong about where the getaway car was. Yet, despite her lack of credibility, detectives believed her when she later picked Malik out of a lineup. The Conviction Review Unit said the jury did not know about her inconsistencies during the trial.

Malik said detectives knew who committed the crime all along. The conviction review report shows a man named Ricardo James confessed to the crime to a criminal informant. Detectives interviewed James but were more focused on the three teenagers.

“They knew the truth. The person that did it told them he did it,” Malik said. “They kept it away, so we had to go to the penitentiary.”

The report shows that a jailhouse informant who testified that Malik confessed to him in prison has since been court-ordered never to provide information to law enforcement again because of a pattern of false reporting.

Chmil and Scarcella, both retired, have been linked to 18 wrongful convictions, reports show. Chmil admitted in court in July 2019 that he and his partner used “some questionable tactics” when obtaining confessions but shied away from admitting to illegal behavior.

The Brooklyn Conviction Review Unit was created in 2014, leading to 33 convictions being vacated, including Malik’s, Irons’ and Ellerbe’s. Another eight of the cases were linked to Chmil and Scarcella.

“For 25 years, I had to look in the mirror knowing that I’m in prison for something I had nothing to do with. Now people look at me on the outside and say, ‘Oh, it wasn’t horrible,'” Ellerbe said. “The penitentiary does one of two things: It breaks you or turns you into a monster just to survive, and I had to become something that I’m not just to survive.”

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