Brooklyn D.A. Names Advisers for His Review of Convictions
As New York City averted a lawsuit from David Ranta, who spent 23 years in prison for a now-vacated murder conviction, the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office announced the appointment of an outside advisory panel to help review other questionable convictions in the wake of the Ranta case.
On Thursday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced a $6.4 million settlement with Ranta, who had submitted a $150 million notice of claim against the city but had not yet filed a full-fledged suit.
On Friday, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced the appointment of a three-member panel to consult with the office's Conviction Review Unit about convictions connected to now-retired detective Louis Scarcella, who handled the case against Ranta, and other cases.
In a statement, Thompson—who ousted longtime incumbent Charles Hynes after slamming him on questionable convictions—said the advisers' "combined experience and uncompromising integrity will prove invaluable in my office's efforts to meticulously examine available evidence in order to right wrongs or confirm convictions. My ultimate goal is to insure that the people of Brooklyn have faith in the fairness of our criminal justice system."
According to the announcement, the panelists will meet as-needed and advise on matters including if a "conviction should stand, needs additional review or should possibly be overturned."
Thompson has not yet announced who will head his office's internal unit. The press release said the conviction review unit "has recently been expanded and re-organized," and details would be forthcoming.
The outside advisers are Bernard Nussbaum, a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of the Columbia University School of Law's Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, and defense attorney Gary Villanueva.
In an interview, Nussbaum said he and the other panelists were tasked with "examining various cases in which questions have arisen whether there was a proper conviction, and to exercise judgment and give opinions to the district attorney."
Noting the panel would soon begin its work, Nussbaum said participation was "an important public service" and he and the other members would do the job "to the best of our ability."
Nussbaum noted his background as a federal prosecutor, a defense attorney and his service as counsel to President Bill Clinton.
"I've done various things in my life that, I think, prepare me to offer my best judgment to the D.A. If there was injustice," Nussbaum said the office was "looking to correct injustice."
In March 2013, Brooklyn prosecutors said the evidence against Ranta had "significantly eroded" and joined a defense motion to vacate the conviction (NYLJ, March 21, 2013). A month later, Ranta submitted his notice of claim that named the city, Scarcella and other officers as possible defendants. The notice's allegations included malicious prosecution, abuse of process and negligent hiring, retention, training, discipline and supervision in violation of Ranta's civil rights (NYLJ, May 15, 2013).
Scarcella has denied any wrongdoing in Ranta's case or any other cases.
Negotiations over notice of claim began under previous Comptroller John Liu and concluded under Stringer, who took office in January
In a statement, Stringer said, "After a review process and negotiations, my office was able to reach a settlement with Mr. Ranta that is in the best interests of all parties and closes the door on a truly regrettable episode in our City's history. I am pleased that my office was able to move quickly to resolve this claim."
The comptroller's office is authorized through the city charter to settle any claims against the city.
In an interview, Eric Sumberg, a comptroller spokesman, said the city's Law Department was not consulted in the settlement process, but said it was not uncommon for the office to determine by itself the amount owed to a claimant.
Sumberg said it is the office's "responsibility to settle claims.… We do research. There's a process to which we determined the amount in addition to negotiations."
Sumberg declined to comment on how the sides agreed on the $6.4 million figure.
A Law Department spokesperson declined to comment on the settlement.
Ranta's attorney, Pierre Sussman of the Bronx, said his office went to "great length to provide the kind of arsenal of evidence that was in our favor," saying Ranta's case was "further strengthened" by the results of a Freedom of Information request subsequent to Ranta's release.
Sussman said the district attorney's office "had concrete evidence of malfeasance on the part of the detectives involved in Ranta's case. I believe it was clear to them in that case, to do what was right with our client."
Sussman said he was "very happy" with the outcome, adding that any litigation in federal court could have dragged on for five to 10 years before resolution—"that's not time my client has to wait."
Ranta is recovering from a heart attack he sustained immediately after his release.
Sussman added that he is now focused on filing a suit in the Court of Claims to recover under the Unjust Conviction Act, pursuant to Court of Claims Act §8-b. Apart from Ranta, Sussman is now investigating Scarcella-related convictions of three clients.