NEW YORK – A man who spent 21 years behind bars for murder was set free Wednesday after prosecutors abandoned his conviction, saying their office improperly withheld information and allowed a mistaken impression that a wounded eyewitness implicated him.
"It was like a bad dream. It had to end someday," Jabbar Washington, 43, said as he left court after a Brooklyn judge dismissed the case against him. "It was hard, but I kept the faith.
Washington had confessed but long since recanted in a deadly 1995 robbery at a drug-den apartment. Six other men also were convicted and remain so.
The case is the 23rd conviction that the Brooklyn district attorney's office has disavowed in the last 3½ years, as it revisits over 100 convictions in one of the most sweeping reviews 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 stopped short of saying they believe he's innocent in the gunslinging holdup that killed Ronald Ellis and wounded five other people.
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.
Washington's lawyer, Ronald Kuby, called the case a reflection of "institutional failure" by the criminal justice system.
The eyewitness, who'd been shot in the robbery, identified Washington in a 1996 lineup as one of the men involved. But before testifying at the grand jury, the witness clarified to a prosecutor that she just recognized Washington as a neighbor, not as one of the robbers, the prosecutor's office said.
The grand jury prosecutor made a note of the eyewitness' explanation, and the identification wasn't repeated at the grand jury or trial. But prosecutors didn't tell Washington's then-lawyer that the eyewitness had backtracked, despite legal obligations to turn over exculpatory information, the DA's office says.
And the trial prosecutor asked the eyewitness and then-Detective Louis Scarcella multiple questions about the lineup — questions the DA's office now sees as intended to convey, "in a back-door sort of way, the impression that she had in fact made an identification," Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale said.
Scarcella, at the trial, then answered a defense lawyer's question by saying that "if he (Washington) didn't get ID'd, it would have been" particularly important to get a confession.
The trial prosecutor, Kyle Reeves, who's now in private practice, declined to comment Wednesday, except to express disappointment about learning of the developments not from former colleagues but from the press. The grand jury prosecutor, who also has left the DA's office, didn't immediately respond to an email sent to a possible address for her Wednesday.
Scarcella, who retired in 2000, has denied any wrongdoing as the Brooklyn DA's office has reviewed roughly 70 of his cases. 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.
His lawyers, Alan M. Abramson and Joel S. Cohen, said Wednesday that the failings in the case were prosecutors' and the trial judge's, and "the fact that Louis Scarcella was the detective on this case is immaterial."
Washington, meanwhile, left court surrounded by the family he'd waited to rejoin, including his mother, wife, two children and a grandchild.
As for his plans, "after all this time, I'm just happy to go home," he said.