Vincent “Vince” Ellerbe, James Irons, and Thomas “Tommy” Malik will be cleared for the 1995 arson murder of Harry P. Kaufman after Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez moved to vacate the convictions earlier this month. The trio was sentenced to 25 years to life, with Ellerbe paroled in 2020. Irons and Malik were released last Friday. 

On Nov. 26, 1995, two men killed the subway token booth attendant Kaufman in a Bed-Stuy station while he was putting in overtime hours to save up for his son’s future college costs. Irons was accused of serving as the killers’ lookout and pressed by detectives to implicate Ellerbe and Malik. The three “confessed” and were subsequently convicted. But Gonzalez’s Conviction Review Unit found a “myriad factual contradictions between the confessions and the evidence recovered at the scene” during the initial case.  

“The horrific murder of Harry Kaufman shocked our city and devastated a loving family, but the findings of an exhaustive, years long reinvestigation of this case leave us unable to stand by the convictions of those charged,” said Gonzalez in a statement. “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. 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.”

The review says lead detectives Louis Scarcella and Stephen Chmil fed Irons information for his confession while a key witness who identified Malik was previously convinced another pair of suspects were the killers. And significant details of the trio’s confessions were found veritably false and likely coerced. 

These overturned convictions mark 33 individuals exonerated by Gonzalez’s Conviction Review Unit. According to VOCAL-NY, New York wrongfully convicts the third most people nationwide, with a staggering 3,068 years stolen from those imprisoned since 1989. To the nonprofit’s Civil Rights Union leader Roger Clark, the trio’s exoneration is just the “tip of the iceberg.” 

“We have a wrongful conviction problem,” he said. “There were unscrupulous prosecutors who would do anything to get somebody convicted. They didn’t care what the charges were, [they didn’t] care if you were innocent or guilty. They simply used to convict. And I remember that clearly, because when I was 20 years old, I was accused of a shooting that I did not commit.”

Irons and Malik returned home after nearly three decades in prison. And Ellerbe recently wrapped up his parole while avoiding recidivism. Ronald Kuby, who represents Malik and Ellerbe, believes his clients are doing well, given the circumstances. The renowned civil rights lawyer says the two returned to supportive families. For Ellerbe, the overturned conviction means an easier time applying for work around the city, while Malik is moving out of New York to live in the countryside with his wife, who he knew before his sentence and married in prison. He met with his mom before departing town.

But leaving the outside as a teenager in 1995 and returning to a world of smart fridges, face-recognition lock screens and self-driving cars is quite the time portal. 

“I don’t think Tommy has moved up to QR codes yet,” said Kuby. “I know he has an email address his wife is setting up for him. He’s getting a cellphone.”

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting:

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