By Kanishka Singh
(Reuters) - Prosecutors asked a judge to reverse the convictions of three men who have spent decades in prison for the 1995 arson death of a subway token clerk, Brooklyn's district attorney said on Friday, adding the men were victims of "problematic identifications and false and contradictory confessions."
The three men - Vincent Ellerbe, Thomas Malik and James Irons - were convicted as teenagers of murdering token seller Harry Kaufman in 1995. They were each sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Malik and Irons remained incarcerated, and Ellerbe was paroled in late 2020.
The clerk was set afire in his booth during a robbery attempt in Brooklyn and was seen running and screaming from the scene, his clothes aflame. He was burned over 70% of his body and died two weeks later.
"The findings of an exhaustive, years-long reinvestigation of this case leave us unable to stand by the convictions of those charged," Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement.
Gonzalez blamed the convictions on the lead detectives on that case, Louis Scarcella and Stephen Chmil, adding that Scarcella pressured the teenage defendants into confessions and ignored factual inconsistencies in the evidence.
"Above all, my obligation is to do justice, and because of the serious problems with the evidence on which these convictions are based, we must move to vacate them and acknowledge the harm done to these men by this failure of our system," Gonzalez said.
Scarcella was repeatedly accused of forcing confessions and framing suspects. After the allegations, the Brooklyn district attorney's office began in 2013 to review many cases that he had worked on. He retired in 2000 and has denied wrongdoing. Over a dozen convictions in his cases have been overturned.
Representatives of Scarcella and Chmil were not immediately available for comment.
(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Frances Kerry)