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Ralph Nolan

Other New York Federal Exonerations
On the afternoon of December 16, 2013, two men stormed into an apartment on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, New York. Six people were inside: Lorraine Scroggins; her daughter, Desiree Scroggins; Christopher Martinez, Desiree Scroggins’s boyfriend; his mother, Sandra Martinez; an infant girl who was the daughter of Christopher Martinez and Desiree Scroggins; and Dayanira Beriguette, a home-health aide for Lorraine Scroggins, who was a quadriplegic.

The robbers displayed guns and tied up the adults while they searched the apartment and stole electronics and jewelry. Desiree Scroggins was pistol-whipped during the robbery but did not seek treatment.

The 911 call made after the robbers fled described the assailants as two Hispanic males. Police interviewed the five adults, who confirmed that description. Sandra Martinez later told police that one of the robbers referred to her as “Mimi,” a family nickname.

Detective Ellis Deloren of the New York Police Department led the investigation. Surveillance video from the elevator had captured the faces of three men believed to be the robbers and a lookout as they made their way up to the apartment. One of the men was Shaun Odiot, Sandra Martinez’s brother.

Separately, Desiree Scroggins had heard in the neighborhood that Odiot had been seen fencing some items taken in the robbery.

Desiree Scroggins called Deloren on January 21, 2014 to report what she had learned and also made a startling admission: the robbers had also stolen marijuana from the apartment in what was most likely a drug-related robbery. Deloren interviewed Sandra Martinez two days later. She made no mention of Odiot and continued to describe the robbers as Hispanic males, one about five foot five and the other six feet tall. The smaller man, she said, was thin, with a black leather jacket. The taller one was heavier, wearing a green jacket.

Using Odiot as a starting point, Deloren assembled 22 mugshots of men with arrest records and connections to Odiot’s address. Among the men was 25-year-old Ralph Nolan.

Deloren returned to the apartment on January 27, 2014 with the photos. Desiree Scroggins looked at the photos, identified Nolan and said she was about 75 percent sure in her identification. Deloren then went to show Lorraine Scroggins the photos. She also said that Nolan was possibly one of the robbers, but she wasn’t sure. Deloren then pulled up Nolan’s Facebook profile and showed Lorraine Scroggins more photos, including one of Nolan holding what looked like a gun. Now, Lorraine was more certain. At that point, Desiree Scroggins entered the room, and her mother, referencing Nolan’s photo, asked,“That’s him, right?”

After Deloren left, the Scrogginses shared what they had seen on Facebook with Christopher and Sandra Martinez. Sandra Martinez identified Nolan on January 28, 2014. Christopher Martinez made his identification on February 10, 2014. He recognized Nolan from years earlier, calling him by the nickname “White Boy,” because Nolan was a member of one of the few white families in the predominantly Black and Hispanic community. Martinez also initially said he didn’t think “White Boy” would be involved in any robbery.

Because the case involved the robbery of purported drug dealers involved with illicit interstate commerce, Nolan was indicted by a federal grand jury on three counts: conspiracy to commit armed robbery, attempted armed robbery, and the use of a weapon in committing an attempted armed robbery. Police arrested him in Gloversville, New York, on July 28, 2014, where he was living with his wife and her three children.

Police interviewed Nolan shortly after his arrest. In the interview, he said the gun in the Facebook photo – which was taken by his cousin – was just a BB gun. Investigators also referenced his previous arrests, including a juvenile adjudication for armed robbery when he was 15 that involved Nolan and two other boys taking lunch money from three boys by threatening to beat them up with their fists. In addition, investigators asked Nolan to provide information about Odiot’s involvement with the robbery. Nolan said he couldn’t help with that. He didn’t know anything about the crime. But he did acknowledge knowing Odiot and said that Odiot had given Nolan a cellphone as a gift about nine years earlier.

Before Nolan’s case went to trial in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Scrogginses and the Martinezes had received immunity for any testimony they gave related to the illegal sale of drugs at the apartment. In addition, a year after the robbery, the government learned that Odiot had been at the apartment the day of the crime and had also asked about Lorraine Scroggins’s drug dealing at Thanksgiving the month before the robbery.

Nolan’s trial attorney was Mitchell Dinnerstein. On April 1, 2015, prosecutors disclosed Deloren’s use of Facebook in making the identifications. Dinnerstein had learned about it separately through an interview with Robert Jackson, who was the son of Lorraine Scroggins. Speaking with a defense investigator, Jackson had described Deloren as grabbing his mother’s iPad and then entering in the information to show her Nolan’s photo. Dinnerstein initially sought to suppress any in-court identifications of Nolan. But he withdrew his motion after Judge George Daniels told him that if he granted that motion, Dinnerstein would be unable to question the witnesses about any irregularities in their pretrial identifications.

In addition, Nolan had a partial alibi; he said he was working with his father, installing cable wiring on the morning of the robbery. But Dinnerstein failed to file a notice of that alibi.

Nolan’s trial began on April 7, 2015. The government presented Odiot as an unindicted co-conspirator. Desiree and Loraine Scroggins, and Sandra and Christopher Martinez each testified that Nolan was one of the two men who robbed them at gunpoint. Beriguette, the home-health aide, also testified and was the only eyewitness who didn’t identify Nolan.

Deloren testified and acknowledged the use of Facebook as an investigative tool.

He was asked on cross-examination:

Q: What you did ask [Lorraine Scroggins] is to look at the Facebook page and see if you can find anybody else who might have been involved?

A: Yes.

Q: Isn’t that implying to her that she got the right person?

A: If that is what she implies, I can’t control what she thinks.

While Jackson testified for the defense, he was allowed to remain in the courtroom while his mother testified, and his trial testimony differed from the pretrial statement he gave the defense investigator. In this version of events, his mother and Deloren were more collaborative in their Facebook search, with his mother controlling the process and Deloren simply entering information at her request. Dinnerstein failed to confront Jackson about the inconsistency.

Although Dinnerstein had not provided an alibi notice, he called Nolan’s father to testify, arguing that the testimony wasn’t actually an alibi but would instead go to Nolan’s state of mind on the morning of and morning after the robbery. The government objected, referring to the potential testimony as a “back door alibi.” Daniels sustained the objection.

While Nolan’s father was precluded from testifying about his son’s whereabouts, the prosecution was able to question him about a violent altercation between the two, further cementing the idea that Nolan was a dangerous person. Bolstering that image was the Facebook photo of Nolan brandishing what appeared to be a gun. Joey Nolan, a cousin, was prepared to testify that he had taken the photo and the weapon was a BB gun. Dinnerstein didn’t call him to testify.

The jury convicted Nolan on April 10, 2015 on all three counts. After the conviction, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York issued a statement that said: “Ralph Nolan terrorized the occupants of a Webster Avenue apartment in the Bronx by tying them up at gunpoint during the commission of a brutal robbery. Now, justice has been served for the victims of this heinous crime.”

On October 9, 2015, Dinnerstein moved to withdraw as Nolan’s attorney. In a letter to Daniels, he said that he had provided ineffective assistance of counsel.

Beyond the eyewitness identification, Dinnerstein wrote, there was no physical or forensic evidence tying Nolan to the crime, and he relied solely on the differences between the witnesses’ initial statements and Nolan’s appearance to show that he did not commit the crime.

“That was a terrible mistake,” he wrote. “In hindsight, the lack of an expert witness to discuss the pitfalls of eyewitness identification led directly to Nolan’s conviction.”

Dinnerstein was replaced by Susan Walsh, and Nolan’s sentencing was delayed for a year. On September 29, 2016, Daniels sentenced Nolan to 10 years in prison. In her sentencing memorandum, Walsh had urged leniency and begun laying the foundation for Nolan’s conviction to be vacated due to ineffective assistance of counsel.

Walsh filed a petition to vacate his conviction on October 6, 2016. While Dinnerstein had confined his ineffectiveness to his failure to provide an expert witness on eyewitness identification, the petition said the problems permeated the entire case. First, Dinnerstein had not effectively challenged the witness identifications, including the use of Facebook to confirm the identifications. Lorraine Scroggins, the motion noted, identified Nolan only after Deloren showed her his photo – and only his photo – on the website. “This procedure was akin to a single photo show-up and the taint poisoned the identifications that followed,” the motion said.

As part of the filing, the motion included a report from Steven Penrod, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Penrod’s report detailed the challenges in eyewitness identifications and the overconfidence that witnesses have in believing they are correct. He also noted a flaw in Deloren’s initial photo array of 22 individuals. It was a contaminated pool, as all the individuals had ties to Odiot and criminal records, raising the possibility of a false positive. Compounding the identification was cross-racial misidentification. The Scrogginses were Black; the Martinezes were Hispanic; and Nolan was white.

In addition, the motion said Nolan’s trial attorney committed errors in his presentation of an alibi defense and in not providing testimony to show that the photo of Nolan was with a BB gun, not a real gun.

Deloren’s tactics also came under further attack. The motion noted that in a separate case in 2015, a federal judge had harshly criticized Deloren’s use of a single-photo identification and failure to timely disclose how many times he met with a witness.

Nolan’s motion said in closing: “The only direct evidence that connected Ralph Nolan to this crime was the highly suspect identifications of four witnesses, each of whom testified under a grant of immunity, had every reason to curry favor with the police, who withheld information from the police and whose identifications were conducted under suggestive procedures by a detective whose credibility in conducting another police arranged identification was rejected by a sister court.”

Daniels denied Nolan’s motion to vacate on February 20, 2018, ruling that Dinnerstein’s representation of Nolan didn’t meet the threshold for ineffectiveness.

Nolan then appealed to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On April 15, 2020, a three-judge panel reversed Daniels and vacated Nolan’s conviction.

The court said that Dinnerstein’s errors went beyond a flawed trial strategy. It said that the failure to pursue the motion to exclude the in-court identifications was particularly grievous. “We do not understand how he could have reached that conclusion. If defense counsel had succeeded in the exclusion motion, it would appear that the case would have been effectively over in light of the Government’s heavy reliance on the eyewitness identifications. And even if defense counsel had lost the motion, they would have educated the judge as to the frailty of the identifications and would, of course, still have been free to fully impeach the eyewitnesses at trial.”

Dinnerstein’s failure to retain an expert witness on eyewitness testimony harmed Nolan in two distinct ways, the court said. First, an expert witness could have given the jury context about mistaken witness identifications and the situations in which they occur. Second, having access to that expertise prior to trial might have led Dinnerstein to not abandon his motion to exclude the in-court identifications.

The court also said that Dinnerstein was ineffective for failing to try to exclude the BB gun photo or, failing that, to seek a limiting instruction on its use.

After the circuit court’s ruling, Nolan was released from prison on April 21, 2020.

On March 22, 2021, the U.S. Attorney’s Office moved to dismiss the case. It said in part: “Based on a review of the evidence in the case and in light of the decision of the Court of Appeals, the Government has concluded that further prosecution of Ralph Nolan, the defendant, would not be in the interests of justice.”

Daniels ordered the case dismissed on March 23, 2021.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 5/27/2021
Last Updated: 5/27/2021
Most Serious Crime:Attempt, Violent
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2013
Sentence:10 years
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No