NEW YORK — After decades in prison, three men were cleared Friday in one of the most horrific crimes of 1990s New York – the murder of an employee who was set on fire at a subway tollbooth.
A judge has thrown out the murder convictions of Vincent Ellerbe, James Irons and Thomas Malik after prosecutors said the case hinged on confessions filled with lies, flimsy witness identifications and other flawed evidence.
The three confessed 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”, which had been released. days earlier.
Malik and Irons, both 45, left the court free for the first time in more than a quarter century. Ellerbe, 44, was granted parole in 2020.
“What happened to us can never be fixed,” Ellerbe told the court, quietly describing the ordeal of prison: “They break you, or they turn you into a monster.”
Malik, still absorbing what happened as he left the court, said it was “definitely too little, too late, but everything takes time. I was just happy that I was able to stay strong.
Irons only said he felt “good.”
The men have long said they were coerced into making false confessions in the case, which had a lead detective who was later repeatedly accused of coercing confessions and setting up suspects. Prosecutors acknowledged that story on Friday, but did not pursue how detectives obtained the confessions in the Kaufman case.
While there was at least one other potential suspect early in the investigation, it’s unclear whether police or prosecutors plan — or may — pursue a deeper investigation decades later. .
Kaufman was attacked on November 26, 1995, while working overtime nights to save extra money for his son’s future school fees. The assailants first tried to steal it, then squirted gasoline into the toll booth’s coin slot and ignited the fuel with matches while he pleaded, “Don’t light it!” authorities said at the time. The stand exploded and Kaufman, 50, fled in flames. The married father died two weeks later.
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.
In fact, Irons was at home with his mother, around the corner from the subway station, when he heard the explosion and called 911 – a call that never made it to the jury during his trial. , said his lawyer, David Shanies.
Since their arrest, the men have argued they were coerced into making a false confession, with Malik claiming 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.
Prosecutors said their review revealed that Scarcella and her partner provided important crime scene details to Irons and Malik while ruling out inconsistencies in their confessions.
For example, Irons said he was able to see his supposed accomplices jump into a getaway car, despite it being parked a block away and around a corner; Malik described the car differently from a witness; Ellerbe described four assailants and said he sprayed gasoline outside the toll booth, when in fact it was poured into the coin slot.
“More than 25 years later, we have no confidence in the integrity of these convictions,” Assistant District Attorney Lori Glachman told the court.
At the time, Scarcella was a star Brooklyn detective in a city reeling from crime. Citywide, murders topped more than 2,200 at their 1990 peak; that compares to 488 last year and a low of 295 in 2018.
But after questions piled up about Scarcella’s tactics, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office in 2013 began reviewing dozens of cases it 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.
The attack looked somewhat like a scene from “Money Train,” an action movie released four days ago. 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.
The review of old convictions by Brooklyn prosecutors is widely considered one of the most ambitious of its kind. In New York and across the country, such efforts have become more common over the past 15 years as DNA evidence, a growing body of research into false confessions and other factors have caused some prosecutors to feel compelled. to become more open to investigating allegations of wrongful conviction.
“It’s not a bad apple or two anymore,” said Ronald Kuby, attorney for Ellerbe and Malik. “This is a systemic rot.”