A man who spent 21 years behind bars for murder was set free Wednesday after prosecutors abandoned his conviction, acknowledging they unfairly withheld information and jurors got misleading testimony about an eyewitness.
Jabbar Washington, 43, broke into a smile as a Brooklyn judge dismissed the case against him.
He had confessed but long since recanted in a deadly 1995 robbery at a drug den. Six other men also were convicted and remain so.
Washington walked out of court to applause from his supporters.
The case is the 23rd conviction that the Brooklyn district attorney’s office has disavowed in the last 3 1/2 years, as it revisits over 100 often decades-old convictions in one of the most sweeping review efforts of its kind nationwide. Washington’s case is one of dozens involving a once prominent detective, now retired, whose tactics have come under scrutiny.
Prosecutors didn’t weigh in Wednesday on Washington’s claim that detectives beat him into confessing, and they stopped short of saying they believe he’s innocent in the gunslinging holdup that killed Ronald Ellis and wounded five other people during a violent era in one of Brooklyn’s most crime-wracked neighborhoods.
But prosecutors conceded that Washington’s trial was unfair and agreed to drop the case, saying they can’t retry it now. The eyewitness died in 2006.
“Given the unresolved issues of credibility in this case, we cannot prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement.
The eyewitness, who’d been shot in the robbery, identified Washington in a 1996 lineup as one of the men involved in the robbery in an apartment in the Brownsville neighborhood. But two days later, she clarified to a prosecutor that she was just identifying Washington as someone she’d seen around the building, not as one of the robbers, the prosecutor’s office said.
Prosecutors at the time made a note that she’d recanted, and she didn’t repeat the identification at the grand jury or trial. But they didn’t tell Washington’s then-lawyer that the eyewitness had backtracked, despite legal obligations to turn over exculpatory information.
And then-Detective Louis Scarcella, who’d obtained Washington’s confession and helped conduct the lineup, suggested at trial that Washington had been identified as a suspect, prosecutors said.
When asked whether getting a confession was particularly important in the case, Scarcella said: “If he didn’t get ID’d, it would have been.”
Scarcella, who retired in 2000, has denied any wrongdoing during a career that built him a reputation as a stellar investigator before the Brooklyn DA’s office began reviewing roughly 70 of his cases in recent years. So far, prosecutors have abandoned about a half-dozen convictions in his cases but stood by nearly three dozen others.
While they characterized his testimony in the Washington case as misleading, they haven’t accused him of breaking any laws.