After decades in prison, three men were cleared Friday in one of the most horrifying crimes of New York's violent 1990s — the killing of a clerk who was set on fire in a subway toll booth.
A judge dismissed the murder convictions of Vincent Ellerbe, James Irons and Thomas Malik after prosecutors said the case was built on falsehood-filled confessions, shaky witness identifications and other flawed evidence.
The three confessed to and were convicted of murdering token seller Harry Kaufman in 1995. The case resounded from New York to Washington to Hollywood, after parallels were drawn between the deadly arson and a scene in the movie "Money Train," which had been released days earlier.
Malik and Irons, both 45, left court free for the first time in over a quarter-century. Ellerbe, 44, was paroled in 2020.
"What happened to us can never be fixed," Ellerbe told the court as he quietly described the ordeal of prison: "They break you, or they turn you into a monster."
Malik, still absorbing what happened as he left court, said it was "definitely too little, too late, but everything takes time. I just was happy that I was able to stand strong."
Irons said only that he felt "great."
The men have long said they were coerced into falsely confessing in the case, which had a lead detective who later was repeatedly accused of forcing confessions and framing suspects. Prosecutors acknowledged that history on Friday but didn't delve into how the detectives obtained the confessions in Kaufman's case.
While there was at least one other potential suspect early in the investigation, it's unclear whether police or prosecutors plan to - or can - pursue any further investigation decades later.
Kaufman was attacked Nov. 26, 1995, while working an overnight shift on overtime to put away extra money for his son's future college tuition. The attackers first tried to rob him, then squirted gasoline through the tollbooth coin slot and ignited the fuel with matches while he pleaded, "Don't light it!" authorities said at the time. The booth exploded, and the 50-year-old Kaufman ran from it in flames. The married father died two weeks later.
Police scoured for suspects and eventually came to question Irons, getting a confession that he was acting as a lookout. He implicated Malik and Ellerbe as the men who had torched the tollbooth.
In fact, Irons was home with his mother, around the corner from the subway station, when he heard the explosion and called 911 - a call that was never played for the jury at his trial, said his lawyer, David Shanies.
From their arrests on, the men maintained that they had been coerced into false confessions, with Malik saying that Detective Louis Scarcella had screamed at him and slammed his head into a locker. Scarcella testified that he cursed, pounded a table and was trying to scare the then-18-year-old Malik, but didn't beat him.
Prosecutors said their review found that Scarcella and his partner fed important details about the crime scene to Irons and Malik while shrugging off inconsistencies in their confessions.
For instance, Irons said he had been able to see his supposed accomplices jump into a getaway car, although it was parked a block away and around a corner; Malik described the car differently from a witness; Ellerbe described four attackers and said he had sprayed gasoline on the outside of the tollbooth, when in fact it was poured in the coin slot.
"More than 25 years later, we do not have any confidence in the integrity of those convictions," assistant District Attorney Lori Glachman told the court.
At the time, Scarcella was a star Brooklyn homicide detective in a city reeling from crime. Citywide, killings topped more than 2,200 at their 1990 peak; that compares to 488 last year and a low of 295 in 2018.
But after questions accumulated about Scarcella's tactics, the Brooklyn district attorney's office began in 2013 to review scores of cases that he had worked.
Scarcella, who retired in 2000, has denied any wrongdoing. While more than a dozen convictions in his cases have been overturned, prosecutors have stood by scores of others.
The attack bore some resemblance to a scene in "Money Train," an action movie released four days. Then-Senate Majority Leader and Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole took to the Senate floor to call for a boycott of the movie.
Authorities gave mixed signals over the years about whether they believed the film had inspired the killing.
Brooklyn prosecutors' reexamination of old convictions is widely viewed as one of the most ambitious of its kind. In New York and around the country, such efforts have become more common over the last 15 years as DNA evidence, a growing body of research on false confessions, and other factors made some prosecutors feel compelled to become more open to investigating wrongful conviction claims.
"The findings of an exhaustive, years-long reinvestigation of this case leave us unable to stand by the convictions,"
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a release. "Above all, my obligation is to do justice, and because of the serious problems with the evidence on which these convictions are based, we must move to vacate them and acknowledge the harm done to these men by this failure of our system."
According to the Gonzalez, the work of the Conviction Review Unit has resulted in 33 convictions being vacated since 2014. Currently, the unit has approximately 50 open investigations.
Gonzalez pledged to continue the investigation of the 1995 killing.
"My heart aches for the Kaufman family and my office remains resolute in our commitment to seek justice for victims, while ensuring fairness to all," he said.