By Kevin Deutsch
The retired Bronx detectives who coerced a false confession from Huwe Burton—the man recently exonerated in the murder of his own mother— have seen their tactics repeatedly challenged in connection with other homicide investigations, Bronx Justice News has learned.
In various appellate filings, legal petitions, and lawsuits, multiple defendants alleged that retired 47th Precinct detectives Sgt. Frank Viggiano, Det. Stanley Schiffman, and Det. Sevelie Jones violated their constitutional rights, leading to wrongful convictions.
The techniques of the veteran investigators first came under public scrutiny last month after Burton, 46, was exonerated in the murder of his mother, Keziah. Sixteen at the time of her death, Burton spent nearly two decades in prison before officials granted him parole in 2009. Bronx Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett vacated Burton’s conviction on Jan. 24.
“It is a tragedy that Mr. Burton spent some 20 years in jail for a crime he did not commit,” Barrett said. “For this I apologize on behalf of a system that failed him.”
The detectives who interrogated Burton “used psychologically coercive techniques that were standard practice at the time,” according to a statement issued by the Innocence Project, whose lawyers represented Burton. “The techniques included isolating Burton from his father, threatening him with additional criminal charges and, ultimately, offering leniency if he confessed to killing his mother.”
The re-investigation of Burton’s case, conducted by Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark’s Conviction Integrity Unit, found that Viggiano, Schiffman, and Jones also used psychologically coercive interrogation tactics to obtain false confessions from two other homicide suspects, Dennis Coss and Kelvin Parker, just three months before Burton confessed, according to the Innocence Project, which worked closely with the DA’s Office on the Burton case.
The DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit found that, “even assuming that the police acted above board in every respect and did not knowingly engage in coercive tactics, the false statements that they obtained independently from Coss and Parker establish that, at the time Burton confessed, the detectives were using techniques that produced false statements.”
The detectives’ other casework will be officially reviewed by the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, according to Patrice O’Shaughnessy, director of communications for the DA’s office.
Bronx Justice News has also learned that Viggiano, who served as commanding officer of the 47th Precinct Detective Squad, and Schiffman, who retired from the NYPD as a first-grade detective, both took jobs with the Bronx DA’s office as Detective Investigators after leaving the police force.
After Burton’s conviction was vacated, Clark told reporters that the detectives’ techniques increased the likelihood of false confessions, but pointed out that such techniques were common at the time.
“It’s not necessarily that they did anything wrong … and so now we know better,” Clark said.
Numerous defense and exoneration lawyers, including Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck, said they would examine whether there were other cases in their files in which the three detectives were involved.
Bronx Justice News this week uncovered several cases in which the detectives in the Burton case saw their investigative tactics challenged, including:
- The 1995 conviction of Calvin Buari, who was exonerated and released in 2017 after serving nearly 22 years of a 50 years-to-life sentence for a double murder he didn’t commit.
47th Precinct detectives handled the investigation into Buari’s case. Their work led to his conviction in the 1992 murders of brothers Salhaddin and Elijah Harris.
When an imprisoned convict named Dwight Robinson confessed in 2003 that he—not Buari—had murdered the Harris brothers, Viggiano, then with the DA’s office, “used undue suggestion and coercion” to get Robinson to recant his confession–and pressured another witness to recant testimony favorable to Buari, according to a lawsuit Buari filed last year.
Schiffman was also involved in the investigation that led to Buari’s conviction, records show.
At the time of the Harris brothers’ murders, the crack epidemic was raging in the Bronx, and drug dealers in the 47th Precinct were battling for territory, Buari’s suit states. From late June into July 1995, at least five people were shot and killed in the precinct, with several others being seriously injured.
It was amid such strife that Buari—a well-known drug dealer at the time who was wounded in one of the shootings-—became the target of detectives’ animus, the suit claims. As part of a frame-up, they approached Robinson, a violent drug dealer at the heart of the turf war, and offered him a deal, according to the suit.
“Detectives from the 47th Precinct made an arrangement with Dwight Robinson that they would allow him to control the drug trade in the area of 213th Street and Bronxwood Avenue and keep the “heat” off of him if Mr. Robinson helped them convict Calvin Buari, thereby quelling the drug war that was raging in the precinct and solving their problem of Mr. Buari and the Harris brothers’ murders,” the suit alleges.
Buari’s lawsuit is still pending. The city law department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
- The 1993 conviction of Shane Watson, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. He was released on parole in 2018 after serving 25 years.
Watson was convicted largely on the strength of eyewitness testimony from Christine Holloway, a retired New York City Correction Officer who identified Watson as the man who shot and killed homicide victim Mark Johnson. Detective Sevelie Jones had administered a photo lineup to Holloway and elicited the identification.
Holloway recanted her identification of Watson in 2013, records show.
She testified that she’d told 47th Precinct detectives she couldn’t identify the shooter, after which they told her: “We’re going to show you some pictures . . . You’re going to have to pick them out of a line-up,” according to court papers filed by Watson. “She claimed detectives then presented her with a single photograph of the defendant and “told me that was the guy” and said not to “worry about it. We have other witnesses . . . we know who this is . . . we got this.”
Attorney Robert Boyle, who is representing Watson as part of a legal team that includes Glenn Garber and Rebecca Freedman of the Exoneration Initiative, said Halloway claims the detectives never told her to lie. Rather, she was “steered toward” identifying Watson as the killer.
“She just kind of played ball with the detectives,” Boyle told Bronx Justice News. “It was made very clear to her who they wanted her to pick out.”
Jones’ version of events differed from Holloway’s.
“It’s not the way it’s done,” Jones testified when asked whether he’d displayed standalone photographs of Watson, in advance of presenting the full photo lineup to Holloway. “We was [sic] never taught that way. You put the photos in a photo array and you show it to the individuals and they select it or not select it.”
Jones testified that he neither mentioned Shane Watson to Holloway, nor told her that Watson’s photograph would appear in the lineup, court records show.
In December, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Engelmayer heard Holloway’s testimony during a hearing in the Southern District. He is expected to rule on whether a state court’s 2014 denial of a motion to vacate Watson’s conviction should be overturned, paving the way for Watson’s possible exoneration.
- The 1982 murder conviction of Jose Felton, one of three men convicted in the 1981 killing of Gregory Grier in his Bronx apartment. Felton, now 65, received a sentence of 18 years to life, and served 24 years before his release on parole in 2006, records show.
Felton appealed his conviction in 2012 based in part on the argument that the state court had erred in failing to suppress his confession, which he said violated his constitutional rights. His confession. and those of the other men convicted, were elicited by Det. Frank Viggiano, records show.
Felton’s appeal was denied.
Detectives Jones, Schiffman, and Viggiano all served in the NYPD for decades.
Jones, a 23-year veteran of the department assigned to the 47th Precinct Detective Unit, retired in 1992, records show.
Schiffman’s law enforcement career spanned more than 50 years. He received multiple awards form from the Detective’s Investigators Association after joining the Bronx DA’s office as a senior detective investigator, including a lifetime achievement award in 2013.
A 2013 Bronx Times column announcing the award said: “We nicknamed Stanley ‘the NYPD’s standup interrogator’ years back for his deceptively deadpan, monotone non-stop stream of jokes and card tricks with suspects in The Box that has them begging for mercy. Stanley is still magically producing confessions – and tips leading to local and federal arrests and convictions, according to his award, with what he calls his Schiffman Shuffle.”
In his 2018 nonfiction book Sex, Money, Murder: A Story of Crack, Blood, and Betrayal, author Jonathan Green wrote that Schiffman “had earned fame for once getting a killer to confess by saying that his victim had a miniature camera in his eye and had recorded the image of his murderer just before he died. (Despite the confession, a Bronx jury acquitted him.)”
Like Schiffman, Viggiano, who was commanding officer of the 47th Precinct Detective Squad at the time of Burton’s arrest, went to work for the Bronx DA’s office after retiring from the NYPD.
Efforts to reach Viggiano, Schiffman, and Jones were unsuccessful.
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some legal observers have drawn parallels between the methods of the three investigators and those of now-infamous NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella, whose tactics led to multiple wrongful convictions—and whose casework is still being reviewed by the Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
“The systematic review of Mr. Scarcella’s work has uncovered troubling patterns by the detective and his colleagues, including the extraction of false confessions, subornation of perjury, and suppression of exculpatory evidence,” civil rights attorney David Shanies wrote in the New York Law Journal this month, comparing the Scarcella scandal to the Bronx cases.
Shanies, who’s handled numerous cases involving wrongful convictions attributed to Scarcella, added:
“By focusing on what Brooklyn has done right – in particular, the systematic review of convictions tied to investigators behind other known wrongful convictions, and a focus on cooperation with defense counsel – the Bronx may be able to right many more wrongs. Ms. Clark should now advance that process with the utmost haste and commitment.”
Since Clark became DA in 2016, there have been at least four convictions vacated in the Bronx, records show. Her office’s willingness to acknowledge flawed casework represents a departure from the administration of former DA Robert Johnson, whose prosecutors rarely cooperated with exoneration lawyers in examining potential wrongful convictions, critics of the prior administration said.