NEW HAVEN — A federal judge has set aside two murder convictions and ordered a new trial for a New Haven man after finding that key evidence related to the conduct of a detective was not turned over to his defense attorneys.
Scott T. Lewis, 48, of New Haven, has been serving a 120-year prison sentence since his conviction in 1995.
Senior U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. on Monday ordered the state to release Lewis within 60 days unless it declares in writing that it intends to retry him for the Oct. 11, 1990, killings of Ricardo Turner, a former New Haven alderman turned drug dealer, and Turner’s lover, Lamont Fields.
A spokesman for the chief state’s attorney’s office said that prosecutors were still reviewing the judge’s decision.
Lewis maintained his innocence since police first began questioning him about the crime, but was convicted at trial and lost appeals and two state habeas corpus petitions.
Haight, after presiding over a federal habeas corpus proceeding, found that Lewis did not receive a fair trial because the state “suppressed exculpatory and impeachment evidence which should have been disclosed” to the defense.
The judge found that at least one police officer had serious doubts about the credibility of the state’s key witness.
Ovil Ruiz, in an initial interview with New Haven Det. Sgt. Michael Sweeney, said that he knew nothing about the crime. When Det. Vincent Raucci Jr. joined the questioning, Raucci fed Ruiz information about the killings, which Ruiz then repeated, making it seem as though he could link Lewis to the crime, according to the judge’s ruling.
Eventually, Lewis was arrested for the murders based largely upon the statements of Ruiz, and convicted at trial, also based largely on Ruiz’s testimony.
Sweeney told the judge during the habeas proceeding that he questioned Ruiz extensively about the crime and that Ruiz “stated that he didn’t know what I was talking about, that he was not involved in it.”
After Raucci joined the interview, he began providing details of the crime to Ruiz. Sweeney said that he took Raucci out of the room and told him to stop, and then they resumed the interview and again Raucci fed information to Ruiz.
“He was telling this person, giving him bits and pieces,” Sweeney said. “And then this person was just parroting it back to him.”
Sweeney said he then questioned Ruiz by himself again and asked Ruiz if he knew anything about the crime, and Ruiz said that he did not. Sweeney said he then asked Ruiz why he was saying that he did have information, and Ruiz responded, “Because Det. Raucci said I’d go home if I tell him what happened. So, I just wanted to get out of here.”
Sweeney testified that he came forward several years later and expressed reservations about Ruiz’s statements to a colleague, although that colleague testified that Sweeney never said anything to him. Sweeney testified that he had taken his concerns no further. Sweeney’s reservations, the judge ruled, should have been made known to the defense.
In his decision, Haight said that he found Sweeney’s testimony credible.
Sweeney said that he stepped forward after Raucci’s alleged misdeeds gained wider attention.
The FBI investigated Raucci in 1997 and turned up dozens of witnesses who cast doubt on the credibility of Raucci’s investigation, including some who described Raucci as a crooked cop.
The FBI report quoted Ruiz as contradicting his original testimony, and accusing Raucci of coercing him into saying that Lewis and his co-defendant, Stefon Morant, were the killers.
The Justice Department did not pursue the claims because so many of those interviewed had questionable backgrounds themselves, including Ruiz.
The judge also found that the state should have disclosed that a police informant named Frank Graham was dead. The defense tried to enter into evidence a police report containing Graham’s statement to police that another man committed the murders, but the trial judge denied the motion because it would have been hearsay and unreliable. Had the defense lawyers known that Graham was dead, and therefore not available to testify, they might have had a better chance of getting it admitted as evidence.
Prosecutors knew that Graham was dead but did not disclose that information to the defense, Haight found.
Lewis was assisted in his federal habeas corpus petition by Columbia Law School Professor Brett Dignam and her students at Columbia.
Dignam, a Milford resident who used to teach at Yale’s law school, has represented Lewis since 2009.
She said the judge’s decision was “proof that the Consitution still works.”
Forty-eight students have worked on Lewis’ case since 2009, and eight participated in the trial.
“All eight of them put on witnesses and got documents into evidence,” Dignam said. “All of them knew the client and had worked for the client for some considerable period of time. And to have a judge who was so careful and thoughtful and attentive and fair … was a wonderful experience.”
By David Owens, Hartford Courant.