Sunday, January 12, 2014

Scott Lewis case shows need for Connecticut conviction integrity unit

The following opinion by David R. Cameron was published in the New Haven Register on January 11, 2014.

A number of wrongful convictions and likely wrongful convictions have come to light in the state in recent years. But perhaps none more emphatically underscores the need for a conviction integrity unit than the case of Scott Lewis.

Lewis was tried and convicted in 1995 for the murders of Ricardo Turner and Edward Lamont Fields in New Haven in the early morning of Oct. 11, 1990. He was sentenced to 120 years in prison. Stefon Morant was tried separately for the murders and sentenced to 70 years.

Now, after years of unsuccessful appeals in state courts, Federal District Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. has ruled the state committed a Brady violation by failing to disclose evidence that was favorable to Lewis and impeached the testimony of the key witness for the prosecution. He ordered that Lewis be released within 60 days unless the state declares its intention to retry him.

There was no forensic evidence linking Lewis to the crime. The weapon used in the murders never was found. He was convicted on the basis the testimony of Augustine Castro, 16 at the time of the homicides, who went by his brother’s name Ovil Ruiz. His testimony was supported by that of Jose Roque, also 16 at the time of the crime and, like Ruiz, part of a drug operation in which Lewis and Morant were involved.

Ruiz was arrested in January 1991 in connection with another shooting. After questioning by New Haven Detectives Michael Sweeney and Vincent Raucci Jr., he told Raucci he overheard Lewis and Morant discussing the possibility that Turner, a banker and supplier for drug operations, might abscond with money and drugs. He said he, Lewis and Morant drove to Turner’s residence, Lewis and Morant went in, he heard gunshots, and Lewis and Morant came running out with two bags. Several weeks later, he saw Lewis throw the gun in the Mill River.

The evidence that was suppressed came to light in Morant’s 1999 habeas trial. Sweeney testified that on several occasions during the interrogation of Ruiz he had to ask Raucci to step outside, and tell him to stop giving him facts about the homicides. After Raucci resumed the interrogation without Sweeney and later emerged to say Ruiz had given him the full account, Sweeney went in and asked Ruiz if he was telling the truth. He said no, the information had come from Raucci.

Sweeney’s testimony in Morant’s habeas trial was entered into the record in Lewis’ 2001 habeas trial. But the judge rejected Lewis’ petition, claiming that all exculpatory evidence had been furnished to the defense in the original trial and the alleged evidence that Raucci influenced Ruiz’ testimony was available through the due diligence of the defense.

Judge Haight ruled the judge was wrong: Sweeney’s testimony was exculpatory, the defense wasn’t told about his interactions with Raucci, and the information wasn’t available through due diligence. He said the state clearly violated Brady v. Maryland (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that suppression of evidence favorable to a defendant violates the constitutional right to due process.

Lewis contacted the FBI and claimed he had been “set up” for the homicides by Raucci, who, he said, was a partner of the man who headed the drug operation and to whom Lewis owed money. An FBI investigation developed information that Raucci used drugs. He was suspended, later charged with billing the city for extra-duty work he didn’t do and assaulting his former girlfriend and, after pleading no contest, was given a suspended sentence.

The FBI also interviewed Ruiz and Roque. Both said their testimony against Lewis and Morant was false. Ruiz said they didn’t do it, that he had agreed to help set them up and had met with Raucci to plan it, and that he knew who did it because he was there. He said most of the account was true except that he replaced the names of those who were with him with those of Lewis and Morant.

Roque, who, like Ruiz, now is incarcerated, said he was threatened by Raucci with arrest for the murders if he didn’t provide a statement implicating Lewis and Morant, and that Raucci provided him with the information.

The state must decide if it will release or retry Lewis. In view of Sweeney’s testimony and the statements by Ruiz and Roque to the FBI, it’s inconceivable it will retry Lewis. But it needs to do more than release him; it must examine why it has taken so long for this egregiously wrongful conviction to come to light.

Perhaps more than any other, this case underscores the need for a statewide conviction integrity unit that would examine the basis for conviction in cases in which there is suspicion of official misconduct or perjury by highly unreliable witnesses. A number of major cities — Dallas, Houston, Chicago and Cook County, Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York — have created such units over the past half-dozen years. Connecticut should do the same.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale and a member of the state’s Eyewitness Identification Task Force.

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