On Monday, a man who was just convicted of the grisly, fiery 1995 murder of a subway token booth worker sued New York City and two detectives, claiming that “a wanton and reckless” police enforcement culture subjected him to decades of unlawful imprisonment, causing grave psychological damage.
Thomas Malik, who is seeking at least $50 million in damages, is one of three men who spent decades in prison before prosecutors last year overturned all three convictions in Harry Kaufman’s killing.
“Malik seeks redress for the official misconduct that caused him to spend nearly 27 years in prison, as well as the mental and physical injuries he sustained while incarcerated,” wrote lawyers Ronald Kuby and Rhidaya Trivedi in the case.
The municipal Law Department stated that it would investigate Malik’s suit. Former co-defend Vincent Ellerbe and James Irons have also claimed compensation.
On Nov. 26, 1995, Kaufman, 50, was set ablaze during an attempted robbery while working a nighttime shift in a Brooklyn subway station. His assailants squirted gasoline into the tollbooth coin slot and lit it with matches.
The heinous murder became a nationwide political talking issue. Then-Senate Majority Leader and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole called for a boycott of the film “Money Train,” which had been released a few days before the attack and featured a scene that bore some resemblance to the incident.
Last year, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office decided that Malik, Irons, and Ellerbe’s convictions were based on false and conflicting confessions — the men have long claimed they were coerced — and other defective evidence.
Prosecutors said in a report last year that Malik was identified in a lineup using flawed methods and a witness who had previously insistently named a different suspect, whom police had rejected. Malik was also implicated by a jail informant who was later discovered to be so prone to lying that a court forbade him from ever working as an informant again.
Former detectives Stephen Chmil and Louis Scarcella were key players in the investigation, with Chmil serving as the primary detective and Scarcella securing Malik’s confession, among other pieces of evidence.
In recent years, the now-retired partners have been accused of pressuring confessions and framing people. More than a dozen convictions in Scarcella’s cases have been overturned, but prosecutors have defended many more.
The former cops deny all wrongdoing. Their attorney refused to comment on Malik’s complaint, in which they are named as defendants alongside the city.
The suit claims that at the time, a “wanton and reckless culture” among police and Brooklyn prosecutors allowed them to violate residents’ rights with impunity, with serious consequences for Malik.
According to his lawsuit, the popularity of his case made him a target for abuse and attacks in prison, where he arrived at the age of 18.
Malik is now 46 years old, married, and lives out of state. However, incarceration has left him psychologically scarred to the point that he can scarcely leave his house, and even putting on a seatbelt reminds him of being shackled and triggers post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, according to the lawsuit.
Ellerbe reached an unspecified settlement with the city comptroller, according to Kuby, who also represented him. According to his attorney, David Shanies, Irons is pursuing a federal lawsuit and has filed a case with the state Court of Claims.
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