(CN) – A federal judge held the city of New Haven’s feet to the fire Tuesday on the 19-year prison stint served by a man who says a police detective with mob ties framed him for murder.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill says New Haven could be liable for continuing to employ Vincent Raucci as a detective even though it knew he was engaging in misconduct and had ties to Frank Parise, an organized-crime figure and drug dealer.
Federal prosecutors have declined to indict Raucci on any charges, but an August 2016 complaint by Scott Lewis claims that the detective was arrested in 1999 after a four-hour standoff with FBI agents and sheriff’s deputies at his mobile home in Silver City.
Lewis, who had been convicted five years earlier for the murder of a New Haven alderman and his lover, says an 18-month FBI investigation “uncovered substantial evidence that Raucci had coerced and improperly coached witnesses into providing false statements implicating Mr. Lewis.”
“The FBI investigation also uncovered ties between Raucci and known drug dealers and organized-crime figures,” the complaint continues.
Lewis says the New Haven Police Department refused requests in 1999 by then-New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. an investigation of Lewis’s case.
It took another 15 years for Lewis to obtain habeas relief, but he was released from custody in February 2014 and all charges against him were dismissed in August 2015.
Lewis claims that former New Haven Police Chief Nicholas Pastore’s failure to stop Raucci could be viewed as an endorsement of Raucci’s misconduct.
Judge Underhill advanced claims against Pastore on Tuesday.
“I hold that Lewis has plausibly alleged that Pastore, acting as a final decisionmaker for the city, made a conscious decision not to supervise or intervene in Raucci’s work despite numerous indications of serious misconduct, which decision led directly to Lewis’s wrongful prosecution and conviction,” the 14-page opinion states.
Underhill rejected claims that the evidence cannot show Raucci was acting on behalf of the city at the time of his conduct because he could have been acting on behalf of the mafia.
“Raucci’s alleged misconduct clearly did not constitute an abandonment of his employment as a police detective — to the contrary, investigating a murder, conducting witness interviews, and building a case against a suspect are exactly the kinds of assignments for which Raucci was employed,” the ruling states.
The court also opted to let New Haven face municipal-liability claims under the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision Monell v. Department of Social Services.
“Lewis has plausibly alleged that the city exhibited a pattern of deliberate indifference to claims of coerced or fabricated testimony,” Underhill wrote.
The exoneree has alleged in his case alone, according to the ruling, that “at least three key witnesses complained that their statements had been coerced or otherwise tried to recant those statements before he was convicted.”
“That number of instances is sufficient at the motion to dismiss stage,” Underhill wrote.
Underhill asked the city to respond to Lewis’ complaint by Feb. 19.
Laurence Grotheer, a spokesman for New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, declined to comment on the ruling, citing city policy to withhold comment on pending litigation.