The Brooklyn District Attorney's conviction review unit is now looking into the case of 34-year-old Nelson Cruz, serving a life sentence for a 1998 murder in East New York, the I-Team has learned.
It is one of several cases connected to retired NYPD Det. Louis Scarcella, an embattled NYPD officer who has had six cases overturned and slew of other convictions being investigated by the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson.
In an exclusive jailhouse interview from Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, Cruz told the I-Team that he was 16 years old when he willingly went to the 75th precinct in East New York to answer cops’ questions about a street murder.
“I’ve been here since I was a kid, since day one, since I went from the precinct to Rikers Island,” said Cruz, who has spent more than half of his life behind bars.
He says his life changed when a detective named Louis Scarcella walked into the room.
"He tried to get a confession out of me at the precinct," Cruz said. "And when I refused to sign it, he became frustrated, crumpled up the paper and slapped me in the face with it. He told me, 'Listen, you just sign the paper, and you’ll go home.' I told him, 'I’m not signing any paper.' ”
Scarcella’s attorney denied the incident happened and says the detective never took a statement from Cruz.
Internal NYPD reports show that Scarcella and his partner did interview two police officers who happened to be on the street at the time of the murder.
They describe a different suspect: a “male Hispanic” with a ponytail who is seen pointing a black gun. One officer sees a “muzzle flash.” The reports go on to say the ponytailed man is handcuffed after dropping his gun.
Cruz’ attorney claims the case shifted after Scarcella and his partner arrived at the precinct.
"This individual they arrest with a murder weapon," said his lawyer Scott Brettschneider. "He is no longer the suspect.”
Cruz was charged and convicted based on a single witness who identified him.
At the time, no one apparently knew about William Harding Jr., who now says he was a witness to the murder of his friend. Harding who had left the neighborhood after the shooting, recently took the I-Team back to the street.
He described how he had seen a ponytailed man with a gun who was grabbed by cops.
He says he never knew about the police accounts that seem to independently corroborate his story.
Harding was later arrested and sent to prison on a gun charge. That just could be the break of a lifetime for Nelson Cruz.
The two men says they ended up in the same yard, and started talking about the murder in East New York. Harding says, “I’m like, "I know you didn’t do that murder' because I seen who did the murder, and I know it wasn’t you.' ”
He has now told his story to investigators in the DA’s office. Cruz is also getting help from Derrick Hamilton, one of six men who’ve had their convictions reversed in Scarcella-connected cases.
The DA’s office says it has reviewed a total of 35 cases linked to the retired detective, and stands by the convictions of 29. Thirty-seven additional cases have been accepted for review.
Scarcella declined an interview.
His attorney claims he didn’t participate in any identification procedure in the Cruz case, never recovered any physical evidence and never testified at the trial.