In at least five cases handled by now-retired Detective Louis Scarcella, suspects began their confessions by saying either “You got it right,” or “I was there.” The discovery casts doubt on other murder convictions that relied on statements extracted by Scarcella.
One man, David Ranta, was even exonerated recently after two decades of insisting he never made his confession, which also started “I was there.” Scarcella claimed Ranta, an unemployed drug addict, suddenly decided to come clean about robbing and shooting a Hasidic rabbi.
Jabbar Washington, another man currently serving a lengthy murder sentence, supposedly owned up to a fatal home invasion by saying, “You got it right. I was there.” The confession was enough to convict him, even though he had an alibi and the survivors did not recognize him in court. Later, he told a jury that Scarcella forced him to sign a pre-written confession by grabbing him by the neck and testicles. The jury did not believe him, but Washington always maintained that the detective had fed him the confession.
If these confessions were indeed bogus, countless innocents may have been condemned to 20-year or longer sentences — not to mention subjected to possible abuse by police officers. Nor does Scarcella’s misconduct seem to be a freak incident. According to scholars interviewed by the Times, it is fairly common for detectives to prompt suspects, leading to false confessions with traces of law enforcement jargon in it.
The Chicago Police Department recently paid out millions to inmates after the discovery that detectives frequently forced confessions by torturing suspects in the 1980s. Several people had spent over 20 years in prison because they had been burned with cigarette lighters, suffocated, or threatened with a gun until they confessed to the crime.
Setting aside the egregious human rights abuses, these forced confessions to capital crimes should raise questions about several states’ enthusiastic death penalty policies. Florida lawmakers recently passed a bill that would speed up executions, prioritizing “timely justice” over rightful sentencing. Former death row inmates whose innocence was proven years after their conviction are protesting the bill, offering themselves as “living proof” that the criminal justice system often makes mistakes. Unmoved by the risk of executing an innocent person, one legislator argued, “Only God can judge. But we can sure set up the meeting.”