NEW YORK (AP) – Five years after Vanessa Gathers told police she had nothing to do with a deadly robbery, a detective questioned her again and got a confession that would put Gathers in prison for 10 years.
Nearly two decades later, Gathers was cleared Tuesday after prosecutors concluded her since-recanted confession was false, peppered with facts that didn’t add up. It was made to a detective whose tactics have come under question.
“I feel great,” Gathers, 58, said as she left court, smiling and wiping tears. As for what she would do next: “Go on with my life.”
Gathers had already been freed on parole in 2007, but prosecutors’ successful bid to get her manslaughter conviction dismissed frees her of a felony record and association with the death of 71-year-old Michael Shaw. He was beaten in his Brooklyn apartment on Nov. 18, 1991, and died of his injuries five months later.
“With this exoneration, Vanessa Gathers gets her good name back,” Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said.
Gathers is the first woman to have her conviction disavowed as Brooklyn prosecutors revisit about 100 cases in one of the most ambitious reviews of its kind in the country. About 70 cases are tied to the same now-retired detective, Louis Scarcella, who denies any wrongdoing.
“Detective Scarcella followed the law as it relates to taking statements from suspects and did not do anything improper,” his lawyers, Alan Abramson and Joel Cohen, said Tuesday.
Shaw was a friendly neighborhood figure, and Gathers would wave to him when passing but didn’t know his name, said one of her lawyers, Lisa Cahill.
Prosecutors said Gathers got onto police radar because she matched the description of a suspect in Shaw’s death. She’d never had any dealings with police before, Cahill said.
Gathers denied involvement, identified a possible suspect and was released, prosecutors said.
Five years later, Scarcella re-examined the cold case and questioned Gathers again. She confessed on video, though her lawyers say she quickly recanted. She was convicted at a 1998 trial, sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and lost appeals.
The confession was the only evidence against Gathers, prosecutors said, and their review found it was riddled with problems.
Gathers said she’d watched others carry out the attack at around 6 p.m. when Shaw’s daughter had seen him, unharmed, after 7 p.m., Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale said. Gathers said Shaw had been beaten in a wheelchair when he’d never owned one. She said she’d gone into his pocket and taken $60, an “extremely unlikely” sum for him to have had, Hale said.
“The scenarios … she acquiesced and confessed to were not, in fact, true,” said Hale.
Cahill said Scarcella lied to Gathers, including about what evidence he had, to get her to confess. Hale said authorities used “permissible pressure.”
In recent years, a number of people who say they were wrongfully convicted decades ago have accused Scarcella of manipulating witnesses and intimidating suspects to produce false evidence.
Brooklyn prosecutors have so far abandoned seven convictions, including Gathers’, in Scarcella’s cases, as well as 11 other convictions that didn’t involve him. They are standing by 38 other convictions – 32 of them in Scarcella’s cases – so far.
Her lawyer said Gathers had handled her fight to be cleared with dignity and without bitterness.
“She is, fundamentally, a decent woman who has lived more than a decent life her whole life,” Cahill said. “She is our hero.”