Brooklyn District Attorney Moves to Vacate Conviction of Man Who Served 14 Years for Homicide Committed by Someone Else


Thursday, January 18, 2024

Brooklyn District Attorney Moves to Vacate Conviction of

Man who served 14 Years for Homicide Committed by Someone Else

Jury Didn’t Hear Evidence that Supported Defense’s Theory of

Different Gunman, Who Was Never Investigated; Defendant Paroled in 2010

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez today announced that following a thorough reinvestigation by his Conviction Review Unit (CRU), he will move to vacate the conviction of Steven Ruffin, 45, who was 18 when convicted of the 1996 killing of a 16-year-old in a case of mistaken identity. The reinvestigation concluded that his defense lawyer failed to present evidence to bolster his claim that another person was the actual killer and that police and prosecutors failed to investigate that potential suspect. The defendant served 14 years in prison before he was released on parole in 2010. The full CRU report is available here.

District Attorney Gonzalez said, “After a full investigation by my Conviction Review Unit, we can no longer stand by this old conviction and will move to give Mr. Ruffin his good name back. A confluence of factors, including errors by defense counsel and tunnel vision by law enforcement, produced a tragic result in this case – Mr. Ruffin was convicted for the actions of a different person whom he claimed to be the killer all along. We will continue to correct miscarriages of justice and to learn from the mistakes we uncover to ensure that they never happen again.”

The defendant will appear in court today at 2:30 p.m. before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic at 320 Jay Street, 15th Floor.

The District Attorney said that on February 5, 1996, at about 9:10 p.m., 16-year-old James Deligny was shot and killed in Crown Heights after he was mistaken to be the person who had just robbed the defendant’s sister of her earrings. According to credible testimony, the victim was approached by a group of young men, one stated, “It’s not him,” when the victim reached into his coat pocket as if he had a gun – and was then fatally shot.

The defendant was convicted based in part on the testimony of the victim’s sister, who described the shooter as a man with a cracked tooth. He was also interrogated by now-retired Detective Louis Scarcella and twice denied being involved in the shooting. The defendant’s estranged father, who was a police officer, was then called to the precinct and convinced the defendant to confess, which he did in his third statement.

At trial, the defense argued that the boyfriend of the defendant’s sister and the person who gave the murder weapon to the detective was the real culprit. The defendant, his sister and two eyewitnesses testified that the defendant was with his sister down the block at the time of the shooting and it was the boyfriend who committed the murder. The defense also called the boyfriend to the stand, where he repeatedly took the fifth. The jury acquitted the defendant of murder but convicted him of first-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison and the sentence was reduced on appeal to 12½ to 25 years.

In reinvestigating the case, CRU reviewed the case files and conducted interviews with most of the witnesses and others involved in the case. It concluded that serious errors by the defense attorney compromised the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Specifically: he failed to have the boyfriend display to the jury that he had a cracked tooth, just like the defendant; failed to bring up the fact that the sole witness never viewed an identification procedure where the boyfriend was the subject; and failed to question witnesses about the fact that the boyfriend confessed to multiple people and even went at some point to get a Legal Aid lawyer with the intention of turning himself in (which he ultimately did not do).

CRU also concluded that the identification of the defendant and his confession were unreliable and that his alibi was plausible. It found that the police and prosecution investigation was inadequate, likely due to tunnel vision and confirmation bias, in that it failed to investigate the boyfriend, who possessed the murder weapon, had a cracked tooth like the defendant as well as a similar motive – to avenge his girlfriend’s robbery. Accordingly, CRU recommended to vacate the conviction and dismiss the underlying indictment.

To date, the work of the Conviction Review Unit has resulted in 37 convictions being vacated since 2014. Currently, CRU has approximately 40 open investigations.

This case was investigated by Assistant District Attorney Bruce Alderman, formerly of the District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, with assistance from Lori Glachman, CRU Editor-in-Chief, under the supervision of Charles Linehan, Unit Chief