Saturday 16 July 2022

They Spent Decades In Prison For Setting A Subway Token Booth On Fire, Killing The Clerk. They Were Just Exonerated.

 It was nearly 2 a.m. on November 26, 1995, when two men poured gasoline into a subway token booth in Brooklyn before lighting it on fire. The booth exploded, severely burning 50-year-old Harry Kaufman, the clerk. He died in the hospital two weeks later.

Three teenagers – Vincent Ellerbe, James Irons, and Thomas Malik – later confessed to the crime and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, The New York Times reported. On Friday, the three men were exonerated in state court. Irons and Malik, each now 45, were immediately released from prison, as Ellerbe, 44, had been released on parole two years ago.

“Twenty-five years I had to look in the mirror knowing that I was in prison for something I had nothing to do with,” Ellerbe said in court, according to the Times.

“The penitentiary breaks you or turns you into a monster,” he added, “and I had to become something I’m not just to survive.”

When the three men were questioned, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a press release, they were coerced into confessing to the crime. When the DA’s office reinvestigated the case more than 25 years after the three men were convicted, they discovered contradictions between the confessions and the evidence found at the scene, as well as contradictions between the confessions themselves.

The reinvestigation found that the lead detectives on the case, Stephen Chmil and Louis Scarcella, fed Irons key details about the case, including photographs of crime scene evidence and describing or showing him a photo of the gasoline container. The details were then used against Irons during his trial to show that he had provided a detailed confession of the crime.

Other details in Irons’ confession were false, such as his claim to have doused the token booth door with gasoline – a fact negated by expert testimony during one of Irons’ co-defendant’s trials.

For Malik, a witness identified him as the person she saw holding the gasoline bottle, even though she had previously identified a different man, who at the time was detectives’ top suspect. That man was never charged. The jury was not allowed to hear about this witness’ numerous contradictory statements, regarding the identification and other details that undermined her credibility.

Ellerbe’s confession contradicted evidence, claiming he used the gasoline bottle to write his street name on the outside of the token booth, even though a fire marshal testified that gasoline had only been poured into the coin slot.

“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. 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,” DA Gonzalez said in a statement. “My heart aches for the Kaufman family and my office remains resolute in our commitment to seek justice for victims, while ensuring fairness to all.”

Kaufman’s son, Adrian, told the Times on Friday that he didn’t expect justice following the exonerations.

“If they didn’t do it, who did?” he told the Times, adding that he didn’t think police would charge anyone else for the murder. “I don’t think there will be justice brought for his family.”

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