The FBI Thought They Were Innocent — But That Wasn’t Enough
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes innocents go to jail.
By Daniel Lev Shkolnik
The FBI received a letter in May 1995 from Scott Lewis, an inmate scheduled for release in 2115. Lewis, along with Stefon Morant, had just been convicted of the 1990 double homicide of former New Haven alderman Ricardo Turner and his supposed lover, Lamont Fields. In the letter, Lewis insisted that he had been framed.
“If I had a nickel for every time we got one of those complaints …,” says retired Special Agent Brian Donnelly, who was closely involved with the case. This, as it turns out, was no average nickel.
The alderman’s homicide case had been closed, almost single-handedly, by former New Haven police detective Vincent Raucci Jr. He’d furnished prosecutors with suspects in the form of Black drug dealers Lewis and Morant, a motive — namely that the ex alderman had been involved in the drug trade and supposedly owed the suspects money — and a star witness, Ovil Ruiz, to back it all up.
Each time we went to interview the witnesses in the case, we found issues.
The state’s case against Lewis appeared copper-bottomed. But “the bureau is sort of the last stop for a lot of civil-rights cases,” Donnelly says. “We’ll run [a complaint] down to see if there’s anything to it.” Special Agent Lisa Bull-DiLullo went to the New Haven Correctional Center to meet with Lewis and hear his version of the story.
Lewis’ story was this: He had been dealing drugs and working for Italian trafficker and local kingpin Frank Parise in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Parise, who was facing a federal weapons charge, asked Lewis to take a larger role in his drug operations until he got out of prison. But Lewis, who had recently watched as a family member became addicted to crack, was backing out of the drug game and refused. He said Parise was insulted and decided to make an example of him. Lewis contended that Parise had Detective Raucci, Parise’s alleged partner, frame him and Morant for the unsolved murders of Turner and Fields (Raucci could not be reached for comment).
After hearing Lewis out, Bull-DiLullo’s instincts told her to believe him, at least enough to open an investigation into Raucci. Special Agent Donnelly, though, was more skeptical. He expected the probe would confirm Raucci’s original evidence, further substantiating Lewis and Morant as the murderers. But that didn’t happen. “Each time we went to interview the witnesses in the case, we found issues,” he says. The more they looked, the more the case dissolved.
After 18 months of conducting dozens of witness interviews and polygraphs, plowing through video surveillance and forensic and handwriting analyses, a picture of Raucci was developing in the FBI’s darkroom — and it wasn’t pretty. Agents compiled a 187-page report that strongly suggested Raucci had, among other things, used crack cocaine, had illicit ties to Parise and coerced the state’s star witness, Ruiz, into fabricating his testimony against Lewis and Morant.
The FBI provided Lewis with a copy of the report, and he immediately leaked it to the New Haven Advocate, which published an exposé. Both the article and the report reached the desk of New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, who pressured the NHPD to bring Raucci in for questioning. By that point, Raucci had relocated to New Mexico.
FBI agents and sheriff’s deputies pinned him down in his New Mexico trailer home, where he forced a four-hour standoff. Following his surrender, Raucci — who notably denied allegations that he framed Lewis — was extradited to New Haven. Instead of being charged with anything in the FBI report, though, he was prosecuted only for overtime hours he falsely billed to the New Haven Police Department and for assaulting his wife in front of their two children — for which he received a lenient two-year probation.
It’s unclear why Raucci was never prosecuted based on the report’s findings. According to Donnelly, the U.S. Attorney’s Office likely decided that it didn’t have enough evidence to guarantee a conviction — something he says happens more than most people realize (the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment). And so, after shaking hands with former colleagues and making jokes as he descended the courthouse steps, Raucci returned to his trailer home in New Mexico, while Lewis and Morant remained in jail.
For the next 14 years, Lewis turned his cell into a law office. Working as his own attorney, he repeatedly tried to appeal his conviction, losing every step of the way. After years of stagnation, his case was taken up by Brett Dignam, a Yale Law School professor. Dignam, who now teaches at Columbia Law School, led a group of 40 Yale law students on a four-year offensive on Lewis’ behalf, compiling a 165-page petition (with a five-volume appendix). After 19 years in prison, Lewis won federal habeas corpus relief in December 2013. Lewis, now 50, was fully exonerated in 2015; Morant, 47, went free soon after.
Today, Lewis’ current lawyer, Nick Brustin, known for winning some of the largest settlements ever awarded in police-misconduct cases, is filing a sweeping civil complaint against the city of New Haven, Raucci, Pastore and four other NHPD officers. Attorney Michael A. Wolak III is representing the city of New Haven and the NHPD, but he admits the city’s defense is in its early stages. “We’re still going through the paperwork,” he says, noting how the original incident was 25 years ago. “It’s still pretty early to make a statement about the conduct of any of the officers.”
But while a court may award reparations at some point, the real justice is freedom. “When I heard that [Lewis] had been exonerated …” Bull-DiLullo doesn’t finish her sentence, but simply smiles instead.
- Daniel Lev Shkolnik, OZY AuthorContact Daniel Lev Shkolnik