/  07.18.2022

On Friday (July 15), after spending at least 25 years in prison, prosecutors overturned the conviction of three men who confessed to one of the most heinous crimes of the 1990s. Vincent Ellerbe, James Irons, and Thomas Malik were teenagers when a judge sent them to jail for setting a subway token booth on fire, killing the clerk inside.

The lead detectives of the case, former disgraced NYPD officers Louis Scarcella and Stephen Chmil, coerced the then-teenagers to confess to the crime. Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez released a statement saying that he requested the convictions to be vacated “because of the serious problems with the evidence on which [they] are based.”

Gonzalez cited “the problematic circumstances of the identifications, the myriad factual contradictions between the confessions and the evidence recovered at the scene, and the material contradictions between the confessions themselves.” The DA office’s Conviction Review Unit reviewed and overturned at least 33 convictions; Scarcella had a hand in 20 cases.

Vincent Ellerbe, who is now 44, told Brooklyn Judge Matthew D’Emic on Friday, “I wasn’t an angel in the street. [But] like I told the parole board, like I told the judge at my sentencing, it wasn’t me.” He continued describing his experience in prison, “The penitentiary does one of two things: It breaks you or turns you into a monster just to survive, and I had to become something that I’m not just to survive.” Ellerbe, 44, was released on parole in 2020, but Malik and Irons, both 45, remained in prison until Friday. The defendants embraced their families immediately after getting clearance from the judge. 

Harry Kaufman — a 50-year-old subway token clerk at the time — was working at the Kingston Avenue and Fulton Street train station in Bedford-Stuyvesant at 1:40 a.m. on November 26, 1995. Authorities report that a man walked up to the booth and poured gasoline from a clear plastic bottle inside the coin slot. Kaufman yelled, “Don’t light it!” as the two other assailants pulled out a match and set the cubicle ablaze. The explosion sent Kaufman flying, and he suffered a third-degree burn on 80% of his body. Unfortunately, he passed away two weeks later.

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