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Federal Judge Orders Alderman’s “Killer” Freed

by Paul Bass | Dec 17, 2013 5:28 pm

(4) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Legal Writes

Contributed Photo A federal judge has ruled that Scott Lewis should go free unless the state chooses to retry him—decades after Lewis began arguing that a crooked New Haven cop falsely arrested him for fatally shooting a city alderman and his lover.

An inmate who fought the system, and his supporters, could claim vindication. So could the FBI.

Seven Connecticut judges had previously shut the door on Lewis’s quest, ruling against him in a case that ignited the outrage of criminal justice-reform activists. The case involves one of New Haven’s more spectacular murders and an explosive subsequent FBI report on police corruption. For decades, Lewis (pictured) kept fighting, sometimes on his own, most recently with the help of law school students and a professor who took up his cause.

On Monday that persistence paid off, when Senior U.S. District Court Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. ordered the state to release Lewis within 60 days unless the state moves to retry him. It could not be determined Tuesday afternoon if that will happen.

Haight included the order in a blistering 68-page decision that took numerous Connecticut judges’ rulings to task. He wrote that a state Supreme Court justice’s logic in previously ruling against Lewis “passeth all understanding.”

Click here to read the judge’s decision.

Columbia Law School “After 18 years in prison, an innocent man is going to come home,” Brett Dignam (pictured) told the Independent Tuesday. Dignam took up Lewis’s cause in 2010 along with her students at Yale Law School. She subsequently moved over to Columbia Law School and enlisted students there to help Lewis with his habeas corpus case.

“It’s taken a long time to get to this point,” remarked Thomas Ullman, Lewis’s original public defender. Ullman said he has always believed in Lewis’s innocence. “This case smelled right from the beginning. It was solely based on one very questionable witness who had mental health issues as well as motivation to testify falsely.”

Lewis was one of two local drug dealers convicting of shooting to death former Hill alderman-turned-drug courier Ricardo Turner and his lover Lamont Fields in their bed at 4 a.m. on Oct. 11, 1990. A former New Haven detective named Vincent Raucci made the arrest, and the case. In 1995 Lewis received a 120-year sentence. He has been living in the state-run MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield ever since, methodically pressing his appeals for freedom.

The FBI subsequently looked into the case and concluded that Detective Raucci, who had a cocaine habit and was allegedly involved with local drug dealers on an extracurricular basis, had fabricated evidence and framed Lewis. But state prosecutors insisted they had the right killer, even while acknowledging Raucci’s problems. The prosecutors successfully fought Lewis’s efforts to have the verdict overturned in seven separate state proceedings. Raucci repeatedly insisted, meanwhile, that he never fabricated evidence or framed Lewis.

Click here for a detailed account of the FBI revelations and the specifics of this case, from a 1998 expose in the now-defunct New Haven Advocate. And click here to read the full FBI report, which covered wide ground about New Haven’s drug trade.

Lewis made a last-ditch habeas corpus appeal to the federal court. He argued that the state had deprived him of his constitutional right to defend himself by withholding two key pieces of evidence (not counting the revelations in the FBI report):

• A police report quoting a trusted confidential informant who said a New Haven crook nicknamed “Bullet” confessed to carrying out the murder. Lewis’s defense tried in vain to present that report to the jury deciding Lewis’s fate. The state never told the defense that that informant had died. His death would have been a relevant factor in arguments over whether that report could be admitted into evidence. In his ruling Monday, Judge Haight criticized the reasoning that the state and a series of Connecticut judges used in supporting the withholding of that information—namely, the reasoning that the defense failed to prove that the witness was unavailable to testify, when all along the state knew that witness was dead. At one point in the ruling, Haight wrote this about state Supreme Court Justice David Borden’s handling of this issue: 

Meaning no disrespect whatsoever, I am bound to say that how Justice Borden could acknowledge during oral argument that [the confidential informant] died before the Lewis trial, and then write an opinion affirming the trial judge’s exclusion of the [police] report [about it] because defense counsel failed to show [the informant] was unavailable, passeth all understanding.  However that may be, it is clear that at the very least, the Connecticut Supreme Court’s opinion was based in significant part upon an unreasonable determination of the facts relevant to an important point of evidence, which resulted in a ruling precluding Lewis from using at trial a document of obvious value to his defense.

Nonetheless, Judge Haight still ended up ruling against Lewis on this issue. He ruled that, even though he considered Lewis’s arguments persuasive, they failed in the end to meet a multi-pronged legal threshold for overturning the state court decision.

• A police account of how Raucci allegedly fed a key witness information to produce a story pinning the murder on Lewis. This time, Judge Haight ruled that Lewis did prove that his constitutional rights were violated, and that the state and all the state judges had erred.

A now-retired police lieutenant named Michael Sweeney produced this account. After Lewis and his alleged accomplice in the double murder, Stefon Morant, were convicted, Sweeney came forward to describe what had happened when Detective Raucci brought in the one key witness on whom the whole case rested, a serial criminal named Ovil Ruiz. Sweeney was present at the time. He testified that Ruiz told him three times he knew nothing about the murder. He testified that Raucci continued to feed him facts about what happened in the murder, then led him to prepare a statement that pinned the murder on Lewis and Morant. Ruiz ended up providing what was by all accounts the central testimony on which Lewis and Morant were convicted.

In a recent federal hearing, state prosecutor JoAnne Sulik sought to discredit Sweeney’s testimony. Judge Haight wasn’t buying. Like state judges before him, he concluded that Sweeney’s testimony was credible. Unlike those state judges, he also concluded that the state violated Lewis’s rights under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution to have access to exculpatory evidence to make his defense. (That’s called a “Brady” claim under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case Brady v. Maryland.)

Judge Haight went so far as to call state Judge Howard Zoarski’s reasoning on this issue “suspect,” “erroneous,” and “unreasonable.” Here’s what Haight wrote about Sweeney’s testimony:

I conclude that his testimony is credible.  ... As I watched Sweeney recount these events on the witness stand close at hand to my position on the bench, his demeanor gave me the impression that he took no pleasure in the testimony he was giving. My sense is that this former NHPD detective was troubled by the sworn account he recited:  troubled by the circumstance of describing dishonorable conduct by a former fellow officer of a police department Sweeney had served with honor for thirty years; and troubled by his own failure to act more forcefully at the time of Raucci’s transgressions. But Sweeney’s answers to my questions toward the end of his testimony were firm and unhesitating.  There was nothing in Sweeney’s answers or his demeanor in making them to suggest that he was doing anything other than give an honest and straightforward account of events that for Sweeney were distasteful, on professional and personal levels. His testimony had about it the ring of truth.

Haight did rule that the state can move to retry Scott Lewis. He gave the state 60 days to make that decision.

Prosecutor Sulik could not be reached for comment.

“Retrying a case that’s over 20 years old is always fraught with problems. In terms of retrying this case, it hasn’t been looked at with respect to that question,” New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington, whose office oversaw the original Lewis prosecution, told the Independent Tuesday.

If the state were to retry Lewis, it would need to present Ovil Ruiz on the stand again. Ruiz is currently in jail on a sexual assault conviction, and he’s facing a separate sexual abuse charge, according to his attorney, Michael Sheehan. Sheehan said he has “no comment” on whether Ruiz would agree to testify in a new Lewis trial. Ruiz told FBI investigators back in the 1990s that he had concocted his original testimony at Detective Raucci’s prompting.

Lewis, meanwhile, is making plans to come home, according to attorney Dignam. Lewis’s wife Jessica Santiago, his son Scott Jr., his daughter Zaryah, and his mom, Ruth Toms (all pictured outside this 2011 court proceeding) faithfully showed up to support him during his court proceedings.

Dignam said she drove to MacDougall-Walker Monday to deliver a print-out of the judge’s ruling to Scott Lewis in person.

“So, you’ve got good news?” Lewis asked her when they met in one of the jail’s two attorney-client visiting rooms.

“Yeah, I’ve got really good news,” Dignam recalled responding. Then she broke into tears.

“Can I hug you now?” Lewis asked her next.

Yes, she said. You can hug me.

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posted by: jahad on December 17, 2013  7:06pm

This is great news. Anyone who followed this case knows that Scott was set up. Congratulations Scott!

posted by: Sally Joughin on December 17, 2013  7:26pm

Fantastic!  Congratulations to Scott Lewis for his persistence in working for justice!
I knew about this case in the 90s and read the complex and shocking FBI report.  I met both Scott Lewis’ and Stefan Morant’s family members when they attended People Against Injustice’s first big conference in New Haven.  Later I attended several trials of both men, to give my support, and saw Scott ably present his case pro se.  But unfortunately none of their attempts were successful, although it was always obvious to me that Scott Lewis and Stefan Morant were wrongfully convicted.  It’s very sad that most prosecutors and some judges just don’t want to allow wrongly convicted individuals to prove their innocence; they can’t admit that mistakes or corruption take place in their criminal justice system.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on December 18, 2013  12:33am

Unitl officials in the Judicial System who perpetrate this kind of injustice are severely punished for knowingly and willingly putting innocent men in prison, and then actually fighting to keep them there, this kind of thing will continue. 

We should not stop at celebrating the release of innocent victims. We should seek to hold responsible the officials who put them there in the first place.

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on December 20, 2013  7:03am

I don’t know anything about this case. But the portion about the police lieutenant being present when a subordinate is coaching the witness is troubling if true. Unsupervised, anything is possible, if in truth one is dealing with a police detective with a different agenda.

But how does one take the statements of the supervisor of the investigation, who watched this, and allowed it to go forward. That supervisor would then approve the transcription of the tapes of the statements, to written form, which the witness, the detective, and the supervisor would sign. That statement would be the foundation for the arrest warrant, which the officer and that supervisor would sign off as being truthful. They hand that to the court prosecutors and judges have to believe the officers and supervisors are presenting truths on the arrest applications. The arrest warrant was signed off on, the arrest was made, the case was ejudicated, and people went to prison.

This supervisor committed all these crimes, knowingly, but years later he comes forward to tell “the truth”. Something’s wrong here, as a closer look at the supervisor, who is now the witness in this case, his not held accountable for his own crimes. Better yet if he has had some sort of an epiphany, and is trying to right the wrongs he committed while working as a New Haven cop and supervisor, what happens to all the other people, and their families that he assisted in putting in prison.

Yes, IF this is the truth, he would have allowed others under his command to do this, and every case he ever supervised needs to be examined, Also every investigation where he shot someone (they are numerous), and sad to say even his statements where he legally shot and killed unarmed people. Sounds like the Independent didn’t dig too deep on this one.

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