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Paul Scrimo

Other Exonerations from Nassau County, New York
On April 13, 2000, the body of 48-year-old Ruth Williams was found in her second-floor apartment above a restaurant in Farmingdale, New York.

She was fully clothed, with a ligature made from the power cord to her answering machine around her neck.

A medical examiner performed an autopsy the next day and concluded that Williams died of strangulation. The last call from her telephone was made at 4 a.m. on April 12.

Williams, a florist, was part of an active bar scene in the Long Island village, and detectives with the Nassau County Police Department learned that she had last been seen in public in the early morning of April 12 at a bar called Y.L. Child’s (pronounced Wild Child’s) in the company of a man named John Kane. Witnesses said Williams and Kane had been joined by another man. They didn’t know his name but described him as white, in his 40s, tattooed, with a stocky build, and a shaved or bald head.

The police interviewed Kane on April 15. He said the last time he had been in Williams’s apartment was about three or four weeks earlier, when she performed oral sex on him. The police asked him about the bald man with the tattoos he was said to have been with on April 12. Kane said he didn’t know anybody who fit that description.

On April 19, police interviewed Francine Quinn, who worked at a nightclub a few storefronts down from Williams’s apartment and had been at Y.L. Child’s after midnight on the morning of April 12. She said she saw Williams and the man with the shaved head and tattoos “making out.” After the bar closed, Quinn said, she went out to the parking lot behind Williams’s apartment and heard loud voices. She saw Williams standing by the steps leading to her apartment and arguing with a bald, husky man. She told police that she thought this was the same man she had seen with Williams at the bar.

The next day, 42-year-old Paul Scrimo contacted the police. He said he had heard that officers wanted to interview the bald-headed man talking to Williams at Y.L. Childs. Scrimo was the superintendent at an apartment complex near the bar and Williams’s place. He said he knew Williams and had talked with her for a few minutes at the bar. He denied any role in her murder or knowing where she lived.

Police brought Kane back in for questioning on May 2, 2000. They told him that they had spoken to witnesses and gathered evidence that suggested he was not being honest in his initial statement. An officer would later testify that it was “insinuated” that Kane was about to be charged with murder.

Kane now said he was at the apartment on April 12, but it was Scrimo who killed Williams. He said that the three of them had wound up there after the bar closed. At some point, he said, Scrimo left and went to the 7-Eleven a block away to get beer and cigarettes. Kane said Williams had again performed oral sex on him, but he asked her to stop because he knew Scrimo would be returning soon.

After Scrimo returned, during a time when Williams had left the room, Kane told Scrimo about what Williams had just done. According to Kane, the three of them hung out in the kitchen for a while, until Scrimo and Williams “had some words. I don’t know what about.”

Scrimo got up to leave, Kane said, and Williams taunted him, making a derogatory comment about Scrimo’s wife. Kane said Scrimo grabbed Williams by the neck and choked her until she stopped breathing. Kane said Scrimo went into the bedroom and returned with a plastic cord and wrapped it around Williams’s neck and pulled on it for about a minute.

Kane said Scrimo then told him to turn off the stereo and collect the beer bottles. He said Scrimo used a rag to wipe off the kitchen table and the doorknob and told Kane not to say anything.

Kane finished making his statement at 9:30 p.m. Detectives arrested Scrimo just after midnight, on May 3, 2000. In a sheath on his belt, Scrimo carried a Leatherman multi-purpose tool, which the police seized.

The Nassau County police interviewed Scrimo for several hours. One officer would later testify that Scrimo denied being in Williams’s apartment but said it was possible that he was too drunk to remember his visit. Scrimo said he didn’t have a relationship with Williams, and he called Kane an “alcoholic” whom he knew from the bar. The interview ended when Scrimo asked to speak with an attorney.

Later on May 3, Quinn viewed a lineup of five men, including Scrimo. She did not recognize any of them as the person she had seen with Williams at the bar. Two days later, after Scrimo’s photo had been published in a local newspaper, Quinn would say that she “recognized” Scrimo as the man from the bar and from outside Williams’s apartment.

Scrimo’s trial in Nassau County Supreme Court began in late April 2002. He was represented by John Chamberlain.

Prior to trial, the state had ordered DNA testing on several items from the apartment and from Williams’s fingernail clippings. Meghan Clement, the technical director in the forensic identity testing department at LabCorp, the company that performed the testing, testified that two cigarette butts contained DNA consistent with Kane’s DNA profile. She said that a fingernail clipping from Williams contained a DNA mixture that was consistent with genetic profiles of Williams and Kane. She said that the probability of a random white person matching the genetic material from the clippings associated with Kane was 1 in 2.6 million.

Clement also said a genetic sample taken from a beer bottle contained a DNA mixture that could not exclude Kane as a major contributor or Scrimo and Williams as minor contributors. She said that the probability of a random white person’s genetic profile being included in the mixture was 1 in 6,800.

Chamberlain had retained a DNA expert to testify about possible contamination in the beer-bottle sample, but that expert never testified.

A fingerprint technician with the police department testified about several fingerprints lifted from the crime scene. Scrimo was not identified as the source of any of the prints. Kane’s fingerprints were found on a CD case. The prints of two other men, John Marks and Steven Schwartz, were also found in the apartment.

After Scrimo’s Leatherman was seized, the tool was examined by the police and the FBI to determine whether it had been used to cut the answering-machine cord used to strangle Williams. A tiny piece of plastic was found on the tool, but it proved to be unconnected to the plastic on the cord.

Two forensic experts, Vito Schilardi with the Nassau County Police Department’s Scientific Investigation Bureau and FBI toolmark analyst Carlo Rosati testified about the cut made on the cord. Each said that the cut was made with a tool that had two blades, such as a scissors or a wire cutter, rather than a knife. The Leatherman did not have either a scissors or a wire cutter, but right beneath the needle-nosed pliers was a section next to the hinge that acted as a shearing device.

Over Chamberlain’s objects, Justice Jeffrey Brown allowed Schiraldi to conduct an experiment in front of the jury where he cut pieces of wire with various devices, including the Leatherman, to demonstrate how different blades leave different marks. “This Leatherman is capable of making the cut that was depicted in the original way that I found the cord,” he testified.

Rosati, who had also examined the Leatherman, said, “My opinion is that the Leatherman multi-purpose tool could have cut those wires, but I cannot say definitively.”

Quinn testified about the bald, stocky man she had seen at Y.L. Child’s and outside Williams’s apartment. She said she believed it was the same person. At the time of the trial, Quinn was facing 12 charges of drug possession and sale. She identified Scrimo as the person she saw at the bar. Quinn also testified that she saw Williams with a different bald and stocky man several hours before she saw Williams at Y.L. Child’s.

Kane testified that Williams had left the bar before closing time and that he suggested that Scrimo join him at her apartment. He said that Scrimo quickly left to get beer and cigarettes. While he was gone, Williams performed oral sex on him. After Scrimo returned, Kane said Scrimo and Williams got into an argument, and Scrimo said he was leaving. “He said, ‘I’m not going to take this. I’m out of here.”

Kane said he tried to get Scrimo to stay, but Williams taunted Scrimo and disparaged his wife. Scrimo became enraged and choked her, and Kane said he stood there, unable to act. “I backed up in the kitchen area and that’s when Scrimo had gotten up and he went to, like, my left, but in the bedroom area. He was out of my sight, you know, just real quick. I heard like a snapping, like something being ripped out. All right. That’s when Ruth was laying there. She looked dead to me. He came back, came up behind her, wrapped it around her neck and pulled up on it.”

During cross-examination, Chamberlain asked Kane numerous times whether he sold drugs. Kane said he didn’t. He also said he hadn’t filed a tax return from 1997-2000 and did odd jobs to support his drinking habit.

Kane testified that Williams performed oral sex on him four or five times in the months prior to her death. They never dated or had intercourse, he said. Chamberlain sought to ask Kane whether he supplied Williams with anything in exchange for these sex acts, but Justice Brown sustained the prosecutor’s objection.

Several police officers testified about Scrimo’s interview after his arrest and that they believed he was not telling the truth. Detective John McHugh said that after officers confronted Scrimo about inconsistencies in his statements, Scrimo said that he had kissed Williams but that was the extent of their involvement. McHugh said Scrimo said he might have gone to the 7-Eleven, but he didn’t know for sure.

Officer Pamela Stark testified that Scrimo had called the police on October 18, 2000, about a disturbance at his apartment complex. (Stark had also been one of the officers who entered Williams’s apartment on April 13.)

Stark testified that when she arrived at Scrimo’s apartment, he put his hands in the air and said, “I didn’t do it. John Kane did.” Later, Stark said, Scrimo told her that Williams was “kissing on him,” but “only to whisper in his ear that she wanted drugs from Kane.” According to Stark, Scrimo said Kane was a drug dealer and “doesn’t give away drugs for free.” Stark said Scrimo told her that he never went inside Williams’s apartment because his wife was going to be really angry. Instead, he gave Kane the beer and cigarettes and went home.

Mohammed Hussain, the clerk at the convenience store, testified that Scrimo came into the store at about 4 a.m. to buy beer and cigarettes. Hussain said he noticed that Scrimo, a regular customer, was buying a different brand of cigarettes, those smoked by Williams, than those he usually purchased. “After he say I need Vantage 100 Light box, I say you buy for the blonde lady. I know she is my only customer who buy those. He say yes.”

Hussain said Scrimo asked him not to tell his wife. Hussain said he agreed, rang up the sale, and then offered Scrimo a condom, which Scrimo accepted.

Hussain was a Pakistani citizen, in the United States as a legal resident alien. Under cross-examination, he said that he had just received his renewal, allowing him to remain in the United States for another year.

Chamberlain had sought to present testimony from several witnesses who said that Kane had sold them drugs, but Justice Brown sustained the state’s objections that this evidence was too tangential to the murder itself. Scrimo didn’t testify, and Chamberlain presented no defense witnesses.

During his closing argument, Chamberlain said that Kane’s story didn’t add up. “The scenario shows you don’t have a normal witness here who says here is what I saw. You had somebody who had every reason to lie and to fend off it wasn’t me, it was him. He had a patsy. He had somebody else to say did it. That’s what this evidence shows.”

The prosecutor said that it would have been easy for the police to make up a case against Kane, who he said lived a “dirty hippie lifestyle,” but the evidence pointed squarely at Scrimo. He noted that the beer and cigarettes Scrimo bought at the 7-Eleven were not found at Williams’s apartment. “Do you think that it’s a coincidence that the only items missing from that crime scene are things that connect him with that murder?” he asked.

The jury convicted Scrimo of second-degree murder on May 21, 2002. He later received a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

Scrimo began a series of appeals through the New York State courts. In filings, he claimed, among other things, that the police had lacked probable cause for his arrest, that there had been insufficient evidence to support his conviction, that Justice Brown had improperly admitted the Leatherman testimony and improperly excluded testimony from potential defense witnesses, and that Chamberlain had been ineffective in his representation because he had failed to keep out the Leatherman testimony and present a successful argument to introduce the testimony of the defense witnesses.

The Supreme Court’s Appellate Division affirmed the conviction on November 10, 2009. The appellate court later denied a separate motion to vacate Scrimo’s conviction based on actual innocence.

On August 26, 2011, Scrimo filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The petition raised the claims Scrimo and his attorneys had asserted in the state filings.

Judge Anne Donnelly denied the petition on September 29, 2017. She said that Chamberlain had provided effective representation and that Justice Brown had not abused his discretion on his evidentiary rulings. Regarding his ruling to exclude testimony about Kane’s alleged drug sales and an incident where he was said to have choked a woman, Judge Donnelly said the events were “not clearly linked” to the murder. “In any event, even assuming the judge committed constitutional errors—and he did not—any error is harmless in light of the other evidence of the petitioner’s guilt,” she wrote.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit allowed Scrimo to file an appeal, which his attorneys submitted on June 13, 2018.

The appeal said Chamberlain’s defense at trial boiled down to this: Kane was a drug dealer; Williams was a customer who owed Kane money; and Kane killed Williams because of that debt. The appeal said Chamberlain had put Justice Brown on notice that he intended to call witnesses who would testify about Kane’s illegal activities and his violence, and that the judge had signaled the appropriateness of that effort.

But during the trial, Justice Brown prevented the state’s witnesses from testifying about this activity and excluded the testimony of defense witnesses, including a woman named Jennifer Hartman, who claimed Kane had choked her after she accused him of selling substandard drugs. (Kane had testified this wasn’t true.) By doing so, the appeal said, Justice Brown had denied Scrimo’s right to present a complete defense. Chamberlain had been ineffective in allowing this to happen, the appeal said, because he failed to raise the proper arguments.

On August 20, 2019, the Second Circuit court reversed Judge Donnelly, granting Scrimo’s habeas petition and ordering a new trial.

The court said that the trial court had misinterpreted Chamberlain’s intention for calling these three witnesses and questioning the state’s witnesses about Kane’s actions. It wasn’t simply to impeach Kane’s testimony. Rather it was to advance an alternative theory of the crime, with Kane as the true murderer.

“Here, the State’s case was thin,” the court wrote. “There were only two candidates for the killer, one of them the defendant, and the other the State’s chief witness, and each pointed to the other. Both candidates changed their stories to the police on several occasions. The forensic evidence was inconclusive, though it pointed in Kane’s direction. And the sole motive for the murder given by Kane, who was there, was that the victim called Scrimo’s wife fat and ugly. This motive—chivalry—was weak if not risible. The state’s supplemental explanation—that Scrimo committed the murder because he was 'trying to get lucky' and failed—lacks firm evidentiary support.”

Scrimo was released on bail on August 18, 2020.

Scrimo’s retrial was delayed for several years, in part because of the COVID pandemic. He was acquitted at retrial on September 28, 2023. This time, Scrimo’s attorneys, Julia Kuan and Earl Ward, were allowed to present evidence from witnesses who said Kane sold drugs and had once tried to choke a dissatisfied customer.

“I put myself in a position to be wrongfully convicted,” Scrimo told Newsday after the acquittal. “If I was at home, back where I belonged, none of this would have happened.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/20/2023
Last Updated: 10/20/2023
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2000
Sentence:25 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:42
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No