NY Atty's 10-Year Fight Upends Wrongful Murder Conviction

By Elizabeth Daley | March 8, 2024, 7:02 PM EST ·

two men in suits embracing outside of courthouse

Attorney Garrett Ordower embraces his client, Steven Ruffin, following a January hearing in Brooklyn, New York, that ended with a judge reversing a wrongful murder conviction that sent Ruffin to prison for 14 years. Ordower spent 10 years working on the case pro bono, beginning as an associate at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz in 2013. (Courtesy of Isseu Diouf Campbell / Afrikanspot and the Legal Aid Society)

Garrett Ordower's career has evolved considerably over the last decade. But from his time at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz, to his current roles at Scale LLP and as general counsel for a legal tech startup, there's been one constant: his commitment to clearing Steven Ruffin's name for a murder he didn't commit.

In January, Ordower stood before a New York state judge in a courtroom in Brooklyn, this time with the Kings County district attorney on his client's side, affirming Ruffin did not kill 16-year-old James Deligny in 1996 and had instead been coerced into confessing by a now-disgraced New York City Police Department detective.

While Ruffin served 14 years for the crime before being paroled in 2010, new evidence later discovered by Ordower and the Legal Aid Society, as well as a 2024 report prepared by the King's County District Attorney's Conviction Review Unit, both pointed at another likely shooter.

"I had always been convinced of Steven's innocence, and you know, he served a long time for something he didn't do, so I wanted to see it through," Ordower told Law360, explaining why he stuck with the manslaughter case since he got involved with it pro bono as an associate at Wachtell in 2013.

Ordower has stuck with Ruffin as both men have seen their lives and careers progress. After leaving Wachtell, Ordower spent four years managing an investment fund focused on litigation finance, and currently is an attorney at the virtually oriented law firm Scale LLP and is general counsel for Mighty Group Inc., which provides software for medical providers and plaintiffs' funders in the personal injury space.

Ruffin was able to find work with the city of Atlanta, thanks in part to a local ordinance preventing discrimination against convicted felons, Ordower explained.

"He's 45, and I am 43," Ordower said. "We are basically the same age, and I think if I had been in jail from the age of 17 to 31 for something that I didn't do, I don't think I would have handled it nearly as well as he did."

Ruffin's wrongful murder conviction has all the elements of a tragedy. After Ruffin's pregnant sister was mugged in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, her boyfriend and family split up to canvas the New York City neighborhood in search of the perpetrator, Ordower said. When one of the groups encountered 16-year-old James Deligny, a confrontation ensued, and Deligny was shot and killed, according to the conviction review report.

Deligny, however, hadn't robbed anyone, the conviction review report later concluded. The person now believed responsible for the killing didn't come forward on their own, and an NYPD detective forced a confession out of Ruffin, then 17, using Ruffin's estranged father against him.

While Ruffin immediately recanted the confession, he was later tried and convicted for manslaughter and possessing a weapon. He was sentenced to 19.5 to 40 years.

On appeal, Ruffin argued there was insufficient evidence of his guilt, pointing in particular to faulty eyewitness testimony, but the conviction ultimately stood. Instead, the court modified his sentence in 1999 to 12.5 to 25 years according to the conviction review report.

In 2013, three years after Ruffin was paroled, it was revealed that the detective who interrogated him, Louis Scarcella, had allowed prisoners to be let out of jail to smoke crack and have sex with prostitutes in exchange for pointing the finger at a 1990 murder suspect.

After this came to light, the Kings County District Attorney's Office assigned a task force to review convictions in all cases involving Scarcella, including Ruffin's. To date, at least 19 convictions have been overturned, according to Ordower.

In total, the cases involved hundreds of years of wrongfully served time, and the overturned convictions have cost the city millions of dollars in civil settlements, according to court records.

In Ruffin's case, Ordower said there were many signs from the start that police had the wrong guy.

For one, there was another suspect: Ruffin's sister's boyfriend, identified in court records as Johnny Glover.

According to the conviction review unit's report, which came as the culmination of the district attorney's reinvestigation of Deligny's murder, Ruffin's sister revealed Glover had planned on confessing to the murder and marrying her.

At the time, Ruffin's sister refused to point the finger at her boyfriend, and so an anonymous tip naming Ruffin led the NYPD to ruthlessly close in, despite the other evidence, Ordower said.

While Ruffin told police Glover had the gun used in the killing, he did not further implicate him. And even though Glover ultimately handed the murder weapon to Scarcella, the detective did not question him.

"I didn't want to," Scarcella said at Ruffin's trial, according to the conviction review report. He testified that there had been no evidence connecting Glover to the shooting, and that he did not have the gun tested for fingerprints.

Another problem was the confession itself. When Scarcella had trouble getting Ruffin to admit to the killing, he testified at Ruffin's criminal trial that he brought in Ruffin's estranged father, a fellow NYPD officer, to help.

"[Scarcella] was very skilled at manipulating people … and Steven's father had been told that there were multiple witnesses who implicated Steven, and [he] basically came into the room convinced that Steven had done this," Ordower said.

Ultimately, Scarcella and Ruffin's father managed to force a confession. However, when Ruffin was alone with his father an hour later, Ordower said Ruffin recanted, telling his father, "'You know I didn't do this.'"

His father didn't tell any of the officers on the case about that recantation, though Ordower said he later acknowledged it at trial. Ruffin, meanwhile, testified that his father promised him a sentence of just a few years if he confessed and threatened him with decades in prison if he did not.

Ruffin later testified at trial that another reason for confessing, in addition to feeling forced, was that, if Glover were convicted in his place, his sister's baby would grow up without a father. Years later, though, Ruffin's sister told investigators from the conviction review unit that she stopped talking to Glover because she couldn't forgive him for not confessing to the crime.

man in suit addressing court

Steven Ruffin addressed the court during his exoneration hearing in January. (Courtesy of Isseu Diouf Campbell / Afrikanspot and the Legal Aid Society)

The case was also plagued by faulty eyewitness testimony, according to Ordower.

He said that after the shooting, Deligny's sister, an eyewitness to his death, was taken to Ruffin's house by police to ask if she recognized him as her brother's killer.

"Eventually, they cuffed [Ruffin] and held him up in front of her, and she said, 'I think so,' and then they brought him in for a lineup," Ordower said.

Ordower called it an example of a so-called show-up procedure, where a suspect is presented to a witness by themselves instead of as part of a lineup.

As an investigative practice, Ordower said it was "horrendously suggestive."

"It completely contaminates someone's identification," he added.

The January exoneration hearing came after his defense team, including Ordower and the Legal Aid Society, as well as the conviction review unit, discovered "significant new evidence" of his innocence. Glover "took steps to turn himself in, but ultimately failed to do so when he learned that he was not under investigation," Ordower told the court.

In the end, the motion to vacate Ruffin's conviction was filed jointly by his defense team and the Kings County District Attorney's Office.

At Ruffin's exoneration hearing, Charles Linehan, an assistant district attorney for Kings County, said that "failures" in both police work and the legal system, combined with "counsel's myriad of mistakes in putting on a defense," had led to Ruffin's conviction. He added that those factors, combined with "serious problems" with witness identification in the case ultimately led his office to side with Ruffin.

Finally given his day to speak in court with the law on his side, Ruffin said he regretted that his mother was no longer alive to see him exonerated. He thanked Legal Aid attorney Ted Hausmann and Ordower "for believing in my innocence and never giving up on me."

"A long time ago, I realized I had to make peace with my situation in order to survive, and not let this ordeal determine what my life would be," Ruffin said, adding that he was grateful to finally have closure.

--Editing by Lakshna Mehta.

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