Shortly after midnight on September 10, 1985, two men chased 34-year-old Ronnie Durant from a location known for drug dealing in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. They caught up to him, shot and killed him and stole his money.
Durant’s nephew told police that two half-brothers, 21-year-old Alvena Jennette
and 22-year-old Darryl Austin
, were responsible, but no arrests were made because the police determined the nephew was not a credible witness. Police interviewed another witness who said the brothers had helped rob Durant, but that a different man shot him.
A third witness told police that the brothers had nothing to do with the crime and provided the name of the man who shot and robbed Durant and the location of the gun. The detective’s notes said that the witness told him that Austin “was there, but he did not do anything.” The notes said Jennette was standing on a stoop but “Did not do anything.”
Those notes were not disclosed for nearly 30 years.
More than a year after the murder of Durant, on January 10, 1987, 27-year-old Donald Manboardes, a drug dealer, was murdered in Crown Heights. On March 13, 1987, a drug addict and crack seller in the neighborhood named Teresa Gomez told police that 26-year-old Robert Hill, a drug dealer who also was a half-brother of Jennette and Austin, had murdered Manboardes. Hill was arrested, questioned and released after he denied involvement. A week later, Detective Louis Scarcella said Gomez came back and told him that Hill also was responsible for the murder of Bruce Siblings in Crown Heights in December 1986—a month before Manboardes was slain.
Hill was then arrested and charged with the murders of Manboardes and Siblings.
After Hill was charged, Detective Scarcella began investigating the murder of Ronnie Durant in 1985. Before long, Jennette and Austin were arrested and charged with that murder when Scarcella said that Gomez told him she had seen them kill Durant.
In 1988, Hill went on trial in Kings County Supreme Court for the Siblings murder. At the trial, Gomez testified that she was hiding in a closet in a crack house and looked through a keyhole to see Hill put a pillow over Siblings’ head and shoot him. On cross-examination, Hill’s defense attorney questioned Gomez about the Manboardes murder, but she told the jury that she had not seen that shooting. She admitted she had been arrested for prostitution and selling crack, but denied using crack, although she said she usually sold crack for three or four days straight at a time without sleeping.
The defense called an investigator who had visited the scene of the shooting and testified there was no keyhole in the door of the closet where Gomez said she was hiding at the time Siblings was shot.
Hill was acquitted of the Siblings murder and then went on trial for the Manboardes murder. Despite her testimony in the Siblings case that she had not witnessed the Manboardes murder, Gomez told the Manboardes jury that she saw Hill and Manboardes quarrelling on the street about drugs. She said that Hill drew a pistol and shot Manboardes and then Hill and another man dragged Manboardes into a taxi. The taxi driver said a man he could not identify told him that Manboardes was his brother and to take him to a hospital.
Another woman who was a drug user and an associate of Manboardes said she later heard Hill, during a conversation with an acquaintance, claim that he had killed one man and wasn’t afraid to kill again.
Hill’s defense attorney was informed that three other witnesses who were present at the shooting would testify that Hill was not the gunman, but that Hill did help put Manboardes into a cab after he was shot. Those witnesses, however, were not called to testify.
In 1988, a jury convicted Hill of second-degree murder for the Manboardes homicide and he was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.
After Hill was convicted, Jennette and Austin went on trial together in Kings County Supreme Court in 1988 for the murder of Durant. Both were convicted almost solely on the basis of the testimony of Gomez. The police notes that a witness to the shooting had said neither man was involved were not disclosed to the defense.
In 1988, Jennette and Austin were both convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 18 years to life in prison. Jennette never saw his brother again—Austin died in prison in 2000. Jennette was paroled in 2007.
In 2011, Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes created a Conviction Integrity Unit and invited defense attorneys to present cases in which innocent defendants may have been convicted. One case the unit learned about was that of David Ranta
, who—like Hill, Jennette and Austin—was convicted of murder based on an investigation by detective Louis Scarcella (who had retired in 1999). The Conviction Integrity Unit’s investigation found that one witness had been told to pick Ranta in a lineup, and that two prosecution witnesses—both convicted felons—were allowed to leave jail, smoke crack and have sex with prostitutes in return for implicating Ranta.
In March 2013, Ranta’s conviction was vacated, the charge was dismissed and he was released from prison.
A few months later, The New York Times published an article accusing Scarcella of misconduct in many investigations: fabricating evidence, coercing witnesses and concealing evidence of defendants’ innocence. The article reported that Gomez had somehow testified as an eyewitness in six separate murder cases. The report prompted the Brooklyn Conviction Integrity Unit to begin to re-investigate 57 cases in which Scarcella was involved.
Kings County District Attorney Ken Thompson, who defeated Hynes in his bid for re-election in the fall of 2013, concluded that as a result of the Conviction Integrity Unit’s investigation, the convictions of Austin, Jennette and Hill would be vacated and the charges dismissed.
“Based on a comprehensive review of these cases, it is clear that testimony from the same problematic witness undermined the integrity of these convictions, and resulted in an unfair trial for each of these defendants,” Thompson said in a statement issued May 6, 2014.
That same day, on the motion of the District Attorney’s Office, the charges against all three defendants were vacated and dismissed. Hill, who was scheduled to be paroled in less than a month, was released immediately.
In June 2014, Hill and Jennette each filed a lawsuit seeking $150 million from the City of New York alleging that they were framed by Scarcella. Austin's mother filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of his estate. In January 2015, the city of New York agreed to settle the lawsuits. The settlements paid $7.15 million to Hill, who spent about 27 years in prison; $6 million to Jennette, who spent about 20 years in prison; and $3.85 million to the estate of Austin, who spent 13 years in prison before his death.
– Maurice Possley