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Shawn Williams

Other Exonerations with Misconduct by Detective Scarcella
Shortly after midnight on July 9, 1993, 18-year-old Marvin Mason was shot to death during an apparent robbery in the lobby of the building where he lived on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York. Several witnesses reported seeing two men run from the building, but none was able to identify them.

Edmond Adams and Vanessa Wagner, who were sitting on a bench across the street, said they saw two men flee. Adams said one was 5 feet 2 inches to 5 feet 4 inches tall, and the other was 5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 6 inches tall.

At about 9 a.m., New York police detectives Louis Scarcella and Stephen Chmil came to the Mason family apartment. Based upon his inquiries in the neighborhood, Mason’s brother, Christopher, gave the detectives the name “Murdock,” as one of the robbers. “Murdock” was the nickname of 19-year-old Shawn Williams.

Scarcella and Chmil created a photo lineup that included Williams’s photo. However, no one was able to identify him. The detectives visited the sixth floor apartment of Margaret Smith, a building resident, that evening. She said from her apartment window she saw two men run away, but was unable to identify them. She said she recognized Williams from the neighborhood, but not as one of the robbers.

The two detectives would later testify that based on a “vibe” that Smith might know more than she was revealing, they returned to her apartment on July 27, 1993. Chmil also later testified that during this interview, Smith identified Williams as one of the robbers.

Subsequently, another detective said that he spoke to Kenyatta Moore, who was in a police lockup. Moore disclosed that on July 11, two days after the murder, he heard Williams bragging about shooting Mason. Moore gave the same account under oath to a grand jury that indicted Williams for the murder.

On October 1, according to the detectives, Smith identified Williams in a photo array and in a live lineup. Williams was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, although he was 6 feet tall—at least a half a foot taller than the description given by Edmond Adams.

At the time Williams was arrested, he told Scarcella he was in Reading, Pennsylvania at the time of the murder. Williams said he had been arrested for drinking beer in public on July 2, 1993 and provided a false first name to police. Scarcella claimed he looked for a record of that arrest and found none.

On August 10, 1994, Williams went to trial in Kings County Supreme Court. Scarcella and Chmil testified that Christopher Mason gave them the nickname “Murdock,” and how their “vibe” led them to visit Smith when she first identified Williams.

Smith was the only witness to identify Williams. She said she was sitting on the windowsill of her sixth floor apartment talking on the phone when she heard the gunshot. She said she recognized Williams when he stopped under a streetlight. She said she saw his face when he looked up and laughed, and that she recognized him from a scar on his neck.

However, in contrast to the detectives’ testimony, Smith said her identification came during the first visit by the detectives on July 9, the same day of the shooting, not on July 27. She also said she—not Christopher Mason—first mentioned the nickname “Murdock” to detectives. She said she had “no doubt” that she told the detectives on that first day to look for “Murdock.”

Vanessa Wagner testified that she heard a loud noise and saw two young men flee from the scene. She did not identify Williams.

On August 16, 1994, the jury convicted Williams of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

In May 1996, the Appellate Division upheld the conviction and sentence.

In March 2013, David Ranta was exonerated of a Brooklyn murder after evidence showed that Scarcella had coerced witnesses to falsely identify Ranta as the killer. The New York Times published an article accusing Scarcella, who retired in 1999, of misconduct in many investigations, including fabricating evidence, coercing witnesses, and concealing evidence of defendants’ innocence.

In August 2013, the New York law firm of Cleary Gottlieb Steen LLP & Hamilton, along with the Legal Aid Society of New York, began representing Williams. Working with Kroll, Inc., an investigative agency, the legal team located and interviewed Smith. In her first meeting with Cleary and Kroll, Smith said Scarcella and Chmil coerced her to falsely identify Williams. Smith also confirmed that in about 2009, Williams, with the help of a relative, was able to telephone Smith. She told him that her testimony was false and had been coerced, and urged him to send someone to interview her.

Smith said Scarcella and Chmil coerced her to falsely identify Williams. Smith signed a sworn affidavit saying that “at no time” did she see any faces or physical characteristics of anyone leaving the scene of the shooting. She said that when Scarcella and Chmil came to her home to show her the photographic lineup, they “moved very quickly through the book of photographs” until they “stopped on a page, pointed to a particular photograph” and said that was “Murdock.”

Smith said that she did not recognize Williams from the photos, did not see him the night of the murder, and did not know his name or any nickname he had. She said the detectives told her that Williams was the killer.

She admitted she falsely identified Williams, but said she felt pressured to do what she believed the detectives wanted her to do. Smith also said she only identified Williams in the live lineup because she had already seen his photograph.

Smith also disclosed that at the time of the trial, she lived in Georgia and did not want to testify. Police came to her home with a material witness order. She was taken to a Georgia court where she said she was arrested and jailed briefly. After her release, the officers came to her house and escorted her “against my will, to New York by plane.” She concluded that she had to falsely testify against Williams so that the police and prosecution would let her alone.

Smith said Scarcella and Chmil told her that “several individuals (including another eyewitness) had informed them that Murdock was the individual who killed Marvin Mason.” However, no other witnesses gave such testimony.

After speaking with Smith, Cleary undertook a search for the material witness order in the materials provided by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, but could not find it. Cleary asked the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office to review their files, and a material witness order for Smith, dated August 2, 1994, was located. There was no evidence the order was ever disclosed to the defense at Williams’s trial. Indeed, Williams had no recollection of ever being told of a material witness order for Smith.

Williams’s legal team retained Dr. Geoffrey Loftus, a University of Washington psychology professor specializing in memory. Loftus reviewed Smith’s testimony at the trial and concluded it was unreliable and flawed. He said, “Ms. Smith, from her window, would have been looking almost straight down at the subject…From this angle, Ms. Smith would almost certainly have only been able to see the top of the subject’s head.” Loftus concluded that “scientific evidence indicates it is highly unlikely that Ms. Smith could have been able to accurately perceive or memorize the subject’s appearance given the lighting and distance under which the purported identification was made.”

In addition, Erick Hylton, a former U.S. Marine who moved into Smith’s apartment in 1993 (the same year as Mason's murder) and was still residing there, spoke to investigators. He said that he would not have been able to recognize anyone on the street—even if he already knew the person—because the street lighting was so poor.

Williams’s legal team also looked into his statement to Scarcella at the time of his arrest that he was in Reading, Pennsylvania at the time of the murder, and had been arrested on July 2 for drinking beer and provided a false first name. Although Scarcella had claimed he was unable to find the record, a search in 2014 turned up an arrest report for “Tony Williams” at the exact time and location that Williams said he had been arrested. In addition, the legal team found medical records showing that Williams had received treatment at a hospital in Reading on July 11, 1993—two days after the murder.

In May 2014, after getting Smith’s recantation, Williams’s legal team informed the conviction review unit at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. In 2015, the lawyers provided the additional information from Dr. Loftus and Hylton.

In January 2017, Williams’s lawyers filed a post-conviction motion in Kings County Supreme Court seeking to vacate his conviction. The District Attorney’s Office opposed the motion. By the time the motion was filed, eight other defendants whose cases were connected to Scarcella had also been exonerated: Roger Logan, Alvena Jennette, Robert Hill, Darryl Austin, Shabaka Shakur, Derrick Hamilton, Carlos Davis, and Vanessa Gathers.

On June 15, 2018, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office filed a letter with Kings County Supreme Court Justice Sharen Hudson saying it would no longer oppose the motion to vacate Williams’s conviction.

On July 13, 2018, Justice Hudson granted the motion and dismissed the indictment against Williams, who was released immediately after nearly 25 years in prison. Williams was at the time the 14th Scarcella-related exoneration. Williams later filed a claim for compensation with the New York State Court of Claims as well as a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The compensation claim was dismissed in 2022, but in April 2022, the City of New York agreed to pay Williams $10.5 million to settle the lawsuit. Williams subsequently filed an appeal of the dismissal of the compensation claim in the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division Second Judicial Department

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/24/2018
Last Updated: 7/5/2022
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1993
Sentence:25 to life
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No