Wrongly convicted Black man who spent 24 years in prison wins $10.5M in federal case

Shawn Williams was 19 when he was convicted of a Brooklyn murder. He won a settlement after alleged misconduct by a prominent detective.

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Shawn Williams was only 19 when he was charged with killing a man in Brooklyn, New York, in 1993. Based on one woman’s testimony, he went to prison for 24 years. According to the New York Timesno forensic evidence connected Williams to the murder, but the woman testified that she saw him on the scene with a gun.

In August 1994, Williams was convicted for the fatal shooting in the Crown Heights neighborhood, then sentenced to 25 years to life.

Shawn Williams was only 19 when he was charged with killing a man in Brooklyn in 1993. A year later, he was wrongly convicted, and he just won a $10.5 million settlement. (Photo: Screenshot/abc7ny.com)

Years later, the alleged witness recanted, accusing a once-famous New York homicide detective, Louis N. Scarcella, of coercing her into naming Williams, who has always maintained his innocence. Williams was released from prison in 2018 after the case was thrown out. 

New York City officials have now reached a $10.5 million settlement with Williams in his federal civil rights lawsuit against Scarcella and two other officers. The Times says it is believed to be the largest settlement so far in a number of wrongful conviction cases resulting from Scarcella’s improper conduct as a police detective.

“No amount of money can give me back the years they took from me,” Williams, now 47, said in a statement Wednesday. “But I am going to keep rebuilding my life and looking ahead to a brighter future.”

Scarcella, who had a high profile in New York City, worked in a Brooklyn crime unit that handled more than 500 homicides a year. But his reputation began to crumble in 2013, after defense attorneys accused him of framing a suspect in a highly publicized investigation into the murder of a Hasidic rabbi in the Williamsburg neighborhood.

Since then, more than a dozen convictions resulting from Scarcella’s investigations have been tossed out, and the city has had to pay millions of dollars to settle civil suits linked to his cases. Several lawsuits are still pending. In fact, more than 70 cases handled by Scarcella have fallen under scrutiny after Brooklyn prosecutors launched a sweeping probe into his record, with a number of these inquiries still ongoing. 

According to The Times, Scarcella, who retired from the police department in 1999, maintains that he did nothing wrong and stands by his work. 

The newspaper report notes that the Williams case is an example of police abuses increasingly under scrutiny as the city and nation reckon with the “ethics and practices of law enforcement.” The Williams case was vacated in 2018 amid a series of other exonerations in New York and other states, several involving police or prosecutorial misconduct from the 1980s and 1990s. 

“Shawn has been through the fire for nearly 30 years,” said David B. Shanies, a civil rights lawyer who represented Williams alongside attorney Samuel P. Hershey. “It’s satisfying to see him come out the other side with his name cleared and some reparation for his ordeal.”

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