Our story today begins with a murder most foul and most commonplace. Back in 1998 when the crime was committed – a deadly shooting on a street in Brooklyn – the local police precinct, the Seven-Five, was one of the homicide hotspots of New York City, averaging a bit over two killings every week.
So maybe it was practice that made the police response so perfectly fast, a suspect arrested, gun in hand, within minutes of the shooting. But that suspect wasn’t charged with the crime. He said he had just picked up the gun after the shooter had dropped it and run off. An implausible story, perhaps, but checkable. That it was immediately accepted and never checked are just the first bits of evidence suggesting police malpractice.
Want more? Well, there were the police officers who handled the case. Louis Scarcella and Steven Chmil later became notorious for “testi-lying,” that is falsifying testimony and evidence to convict their suspects. Dozens of cases they had made, some resulting in convictions and long sentences were later dropped by prosecutors or reversed by the courts.
In this case, the officers seemed to have coached the gunman-witness, steering Eduardo Rodriguez to identify a different shooter, a kid named Nelson Cruz. The witness, the guy caught holding the smoking gun, had a criminal record, which made him, if not doubly suspect, doubly vulnerable to pressure to become a pliant witness. But apparently, not a good one, because prosecutors never called him to the stand.
The only witness who was produced at trial had his own vulnerabilities, including some prior felony convictions and a tendency to change his story each time he told it. He did identify someone who could back up his story, but investigators and prosecutors didn’t bother to look for him.
The accused Cruz said he had witnesses who could place him somewhere else – his 16th birthday celebration – at the time of the shooting, but his defense attorney said, the case against him was so weak, he didn’t need to seek out those alibi witnesses.
Cruz was convicted, and for 20 years – from behind prison bars – protested his innocence, until a new lawyer found a sympathetic judge who agreed to reconsider his case. She had already tossed one conviction obtained based on evidence and testimony from the two disgraced cops who had busted Cruz.
But, it turned out, the Judge, ShawnDya Simpson, a recognized and rising star in the Brooklyn Court system, had a fatal flaw: early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Exactly when the Alzheimer’s took hold and exactly how it affected Judge Simpson is hard to know. Her husband noticed symptoms by 2018 when she was just starting her reconsideration of Nelson Cruz’ case. Her handling of the case was unusual to say the least, with repeated missed court dates, confessions of unread materials, even reversals of judgments and reopenings of arguments. By February 2020, Judge Simpson – who is just 54 – was diagnosed with mid-stage Alzheimer’s Disease and she resigned her office, with Nelson Cruz’ case still unfinished, with Cruz himself still incarcerated. Which is essentially where Cruz and his case are right now.
This story is a cluster of human tragedies embedded in a huge and unanswered cluster of questions: who can judge if a jurist has lost cognitive competence and how can they prove it, and even if they can make and verify a determination that a judge has lost his or her marbles – what can be done about it?
Joe Sexton is a senior editor at ProPublica. Before coming to ProPublica in 2013, he had worked for 25 years as a reporter and editor at The New York Times. Sexton served as metropolitan editor at the Times from 2006 to 2011, and his staff won two Pulitzer Prizes, including the award for breaking news for its coverage of Eliot Spitzer’s downfall. From 2011 to 2013, Sexton served as the paper’s sports editor, overseeing its coverage of the 2012 Summer Games in London and the Penn State scandal, among other major stories. The department under Sexton won a wide array of awards for its photography, art design and innovative online presentations. As a reporter, Sexton covered sports, politics, crime and the historic overhaul of the country’s welfare legislation. His work was anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting (Houghton/Mifflin). Sexton is a lifelong resident of Brooklyn and the father of four daughters.