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John Scott

Other New York Robbery Cases
On March 21, 1996, two men wearing ski masks and holding guns entered a bodega, or small grocery store, in Queens, New York, and announced a robbery.

William Vizcarrondo was working at the store, which was owned by his father. The taller of the two robbers told Vizcarrondo to give him the money in the cash register and also “run the shine,” which Vizcarrondo took to mean he had to hand over his jewelry. He gave the robber a ring and a chain. Four other people were in the store, but it isn’t clear from court records what was taken from them. At some point during the robbery, a shot was fired but nobody was hit. The tall robber asked for a cigarette and wanted to know the score of a basketball game. Then both robbers left.

Detective Gary Russo of the New York Police Department led the investigation. Because both robbers wore masks, Vizcarrondo couldn’t offer a detailed description of the men. But he told Russo that he was able to see a little patch of skin around the eye holes of the tall robber’s mask that suggested the robber was a light-skinned Black man. Vizcarrondo also said the tall robber had a distinctive voice, one that he would later testify was different from any he had ever heard.

On March 29, 1996, police in Queens arrested John Scott for his involvement in a February shooting at his mother’s house in the Astoria neighborhood. (He would be acquitted of those charges.) While at the police station, Scott agreed to take part in a lineup for the bodega robbery. Each person in the lineup repeated the phrase “Run the shine,” and Vizcarrondo selected Scott in part based on his “deep” voice and also that his skin color appeared to be similar to that of the tall robber.

Scott was then charged with five counts of armed robbery; five counts of robbery in concert with a second armed man; and three counts of depraved indifference to human life for aiming and firing his weapon.

At a pre-trial hearing, Scott’s attorney tried to suppress Vizcarrondo’s “ear witness” identification. Russo described the lineup process for the court. He said the six participants were seated in the viewing area. He said he asked each man to stand and say “Run the shine.” Only after hearing the various voices, Russo said, did Vizcarrondo identify Scott.

The judge denied Scott’s motion to suppress, noting “There was nothing elicited in the testimony to indicate that the voice identification was suggestive in any way.”

During the trial in the Supreme Court of Queens County, Vizcarrondo and the other victims of the robbery each testified. None could identify Scott by sight. The other victims described the tall robber’s voice as “rough, deep, cool, commanding or hard.”

Scott didn’t testify or speak at the trial. No recording of his voice was offered into evidence, and Vizcarrondo made no in-court identification of Scott based on his voice.

Scott’s attorney asked him on cross-examination: “I want you to look around this room and look over there, look very carefully. Do you recognize this person as the person who robbed you?”

Vizcarrondo responded: “I recognize him from the lineup, but I don't recognize the person that robbed me because I couldn't see because of the mask.”

The jury convicted Scott, and he was sentenced on August 18, 1997 to 25 years in prison.

Scott appealed his conviction, arguing that the evidence used against him was insufficient.

On June 18, 2001, the New York Supreme Court’s appellate division vacated his conviction and dismissed his indictment. The court wrote that the trial court erred in allowing jurors to hear testimony about the voice identification.

“The fact remains that the jury had no opportunity to hear the defendant's voice, or to assess its allegedly distinctive quality. Furthermore, the jury had no opportunity to hear the voices of the five other members of the lineup from which the defendant was selected. Had the People proved that their principal witness selected the defendant from a lineup consisting of other deep-voiced men, then the weight to be afforded to any evidence relating to such identification would certainly be stronger than if it were to appear that the defendant was instead chosen from a lineup in which every other participant had a voice noticeably higher than his own.”

After his release from prison, Scott sought compensation for his wrongful conviction from the State of New York Court of Claims. Under the state’s Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act, Scott needed to prove his innocence to receive an award.

At the claims trial, both he and an alibi witness said that Scott was not in Queens at the time of the robbery. The witness testified that he and his then-girlfriend had been prepared to testify at Scott’s criminal trial, but Scott’s attorney had located them too close to trial and was unable to get them admitted as alibi witnesses.

On February 6, 2006, a Court of Claims judge ruled that Scott had proven his innocence. He was then awarded $100,000 in state compensation.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 9/2/2020
Last Updated: 9/2/2020
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1996
Sentence:25 years
Age at the date of reported crime:
Contributing Factors:
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No