Why These Exonerees Hope the Repeal of 50-A Will Break Down the ‘Blue Wall of Silence’
Shabaka Shakur and Derrick Hamilton spent more than 25 years in prison because of misconduct by the same police officer.
06.11.20 By Daniele Selby, Alicia Maule
In 1988, Shabaka Shakur was arrested after two of his friends were shot and killed in Brooklyn. And though Shakur always maintained his innocence, his case was soon complicated by false testimony and a confession fabricated by a police detective with a history of misconduct — unbeknownst to Shakur — and he was wrongfully convicted the following year.
But this week, the New York State Legislature passed a bill repealing a law known as 50-A, which allowed the police to shield misconduct records from the public. Had such a law been in place sooner, wrongful convictions like Shakur’s and many others might have been prevented, and, perhaps, even the killing of George Floyd.
“The officer [who knelt on Floyd] had over a dozen different instances of violence on his record. It should be public information, because we need to keep our eye on these police officers,” Shakur told the Innocence Project. “It’s become clear that if we don’t, they will leave these officers on the force even though they have numerous prior instances … but most of the time we don’t know.”
That was the case with detective Louis Scarcella, who falsely testified that Shakur had confessed to killing the men.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Scarcella was considered a top homicide detective in Brooklyn and worked on more than 70 murder cases in his 26 years on the force. But in the last decade, his reputation has been tarnished as more than a dozen men he helped send to prison have had their convictions overturned — including Shakur.
“Scarcella took over 200 years of people’s lives and he’s being honored by police — not ostracized.”
Though Shakur had two alibi witnesses and the gun found near the crime scene could not be linked to him, the then 24-year-old was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison in 1989.
Years later, while incarcerated at a prison in central New York, Shakur met another man who also said he’d been wrongfully convicted of a murder in Brooklyn. The man, Derrick Hamilton, and Shakur forged a bond over many hours in the prison library researching and learning about the law with the hopes of proving their innocence.
But their wrongful conviction wasn’t the only thing that Shakur and Hamilton had in common. As they pored over law books, they came to realize that they had been sent to prison by the same person: Scarcella.
“Scarcella took over 200 years of people’s lives and he’s being honored by police — not ostracized,” Hamilton told the Innocence Project. To this day, Scarcella, who retired in 1999, has never been charged with official misconduct or breaking the law, despite some judges noting in their decisions to vacate convictions obtained under Scarcella that he had not been truthful in his testimony.
“Scarcella was a corrupt cop. They knew he was. Repealing 50-A would have made them turn around the records to the public,” Hamilton said. “Enough is enough, we have to get rid of the whole culture of cops protecting each other. Scarcella is still being applauded by cops and that is what’s wrong with the culture.”