Prosecutors are seeking to vacate the conviction of a Brooklyn man who spent 14 years in prison for a killing he didn’t commit after prosecutors say his estranged father, an NYPD officer, encouraged him to confess to the crime.
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said on Thursday that his office will move to overturn 45-year-old Steven Ruffin’s first-degree manslaughter conviction for a 1996 killing in Crown Heights.
“After a full investigation by my Conviction Review Unit, we can no longer stand by this old conviction and will move to give Mr. Ruffin his good name back,” Gonzalez said.
NYPD Det. Louis Scarcella, who has been accused of framing dozens of people for murder, used “high-pressure tactics” to elicit Ruffin’s confession, according to the nonprofit Legal Aid Society. The group added that Scarcella has been involved in 17 previous cases that have resulted in exonerations.
Ruffin was released on parole in 2010.
“I lost 14 years of my life for a crime I didn’t commit, and today will help me to move on from that chapter of my life, cleared of any wrongdoing,” he said.
On Feb. 5, 1996, someone stole Ruffin’s sister’s earrings. She told her brother, their family and her then-boyfriend, and all of them set out to canvas the neighborhood about the theft, according to the Legal Aid Society.
Prosecutors said James Deligny, 16, was mistaken for the thief and was shot and killed. Ruffin, who was 17 and in high school at the time, was convicted of that killing partly because of Deligny’s sister’s testimony, in which she described the shooter as having a cracked tooth — a description Ruffin matched — Gonzalez said.
When Scarcella interrogated Ruffin, he first denied being involved in the shooting. Ruffin’s estranged father, a police officer, was called to the precinct and pressured him to confess, which he did, according to the conviction review report.
The defense argued that Ruffin’s sister’s boyfriend was actually the killer, Gonzalez said. Ruffin, his sister and two eyewitnesses testified that Ruffin was down the block with his sister at the time of the shooting and said the boyfriend had shot Deligny.
Ruffin’s sister’s boyfriend took the stand but invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and was not compelled to show the jury he also had a cracked tooth, according to the DA’s office. The jury acquitted Ruffin of murder but convicted him of first-degree manslaughter.
After reviewing the case files, the conviction review unit determined Ruffin’s right to a fair trial was compromised by serious errors by the now-deceased defense attorney, including failing to compel the boyfriend to show the jury his cracked tooth and failing to question witnesses about the fact that the boyfriend confessed to multiple people.
Gonzalez said the boyfriend had even sought a Legal Aid lawyer at one point with the intention of turning himself in, but never did.
“A confluence of factors, including errors by defense counsel and tunnel vision by law enforcement, produced a tragic result in this case — Mr. Ruffin was convicted for the actions of a different person whom he claimed to be the killer all along,” Gonzalez said.
The Legal Aid Society and attorney Garrett Ordower have been working pro bono to get Ruffin’s conviction vacated. They said no physical evidence tied Ruffin to the crime and that he was convicted based solely on the testimony of a single eyewitness and a false confession.
It has become more common in recent years for prosecutors in New York City and across the country to re-examine potentially wrongful convictions. The DAs in all five boroughs have established special units to review such cases.
In Brooklyn, Gonzalez said his office’s conviction review unit has vacated 37 convictions and is currently investigating about 40 others. He and other city prosecutors have also asked judges to toss hundreds of cases connected to NYPD detectives accused of misconduct, including Scarcella.