Judge Exonerates 3 Men Convicted Of NYC Subway Clerk’s Fiery 1995 Murder

Vincent Ellerbe, James Irons, and Thomas Malik were teenagers when police coerced them into making false confessions, prosecutors say.

Transit workers dismantle the charred inner wall of a token booth at the Kingston Avenue and Fulton Street subway station in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Nov. 26, 1995, after attackers sprayed a flammable liquid into the token booth and lit it on fire, according to police.

Vincent Ellerbe, James Irons, and Thomas Malik were teenagers when police coerced them into making false confessions, prosecutors say.

Photo by: Associated Press

Associated Press

By: Aaron Rasmussen

On July 15, 2022, a judge dismissed the murder convictions of three men who spent decades behind bars after they were found guilty of burning a subway clerk to death inside a booth in the 1990s.

Vincent Ellerbe, James Irons, and Thomas Malik are now all free following Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announcing his office found “serious problems with the evidence on which these convictions are based,” NPR reported.

Around 1 a.m. on Nov. 26, 1995, token seller Harry Kaufman was working an overnight shift at a Brooklyn subway stop when culprits poured gasoline into his enclosed booth and then lit it on fire with him inside after a failed robbery attempt.

Kaufman, 50, suffered severe burns over 70 percent of his body in the ensuing explosion and he died two weeks later from his injuries.

Detectives identified then-17-year-old Irons as a suspect, and he reportedly confessed he was a lookout during the robbery. Irons then implicated Ellerbe and Malik, both 18 at the time, as the two who lit the booth on fire.

Like Irons, both Ellerbe and Malik said they were involved in the incident, but all have since maintained that Louis Scarcella and Stephen Chmil, the lead detectives working the case, coerced them into falsely admitting guilt. At one point, Malik later claimed, Scarcella allegedly took his head and slammed it into a locker during questioning.

Despite what Brooklyn D.A. Gonzalez now notes were “problematic identifications and false and contradictory confessions,” all three teenagers were convicted of second-degree murder and a judge sentenced each to 25 years to life in prison, Reuters reported.

The district attorney said that after an “exhaustive, years-long reinvestigation” of the case, prosecutors are “unable to stand by the convictions” because of the flawed evidence.

The D.A. claimed detectives allegedly glossed over or ignored the inconsistencies in both evidence and in the three teenagers’ purported confessions, and authorities allegedly provided Irons key details about what happened the night of Kaufman’s death, including facts there was no way for the teen to have known, according to The New York Times.

The publication reported that multiple accusations Detective Scarcella forced confessions and framed suspects in connection with other crimes resulted in the D.A. scrutinizing at least 70 cases he worked on beginning as far back as 2013. The review of past convictions the former cop helped secure has so far resulted in at least a dozen exonerations to date.

Scarcella retired decades ago and has denied all allegations against him.

In 2020, Ellerbe, now 44, was paroled, but Malik and Irons, both 45, remained behind bars until state court judge Matthew J. D’Emic vacated all three men’s convictions on July 15 at the D.A.’s request.

“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 after the decision, The New York Times reported.

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

D.A. Gonzalez said the “harm done to these men” was the result of the “failure of our system.”

Ellerby’s lawyer, Ronald Kuby, was blunter in his assessment of alleged police misconduct and what happened to his client. “This is no longer about one or two bad apples,” he said. “This is about a systemic rot.”

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