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Federal court tosses Long Island man's 2002 murder conviction

Paul Scrimo leaves Nassau County Court in Mineola,

Paul Scrimo leaves Nassau County Court in Mineola, May 6, 2002. Credit: NEWSDAY STAFF/Michael E. Ach

A federal court has thrown out a murder conviction that put a Long Island man behind bars for more than 17 years after a jury found him guilty of strangling a Farmingdale woman.

Paul Scrimo's petition to the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals was reviewed by the three-judge panel that handed down its decision Tuesday. The justices agreed with Scrimo, 62, that his constitutional rights were violated because he was not allowed to call three witnesses during his trial in May 2002.

"We conclude that the trial court’s exclusion of three defense witnesses violated Scrimo’s constitutional right to present a complete defense," the decision said. "Accordingly, we reverse and remand the judgment of the district court."

Through a spokesman, Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said her office was reviewing the decision but had not decided whether to retry the case. Scrimo, who is being held at the Eastern correctional facility in upstate Napanoch, will be held in custody but the court ordered the prosecution to decide either to retry the case or appeal the decision.

"Obviously, I'm very pleased by the result," said Randall D. Unger, the Bayside-based attorney who represented Scrimo on appeal. "It's an unfortunate situation that a woman was killed, brutally murdered, and Mr. Scrimo has spent almost 18 years in prison. It's pretty sad and if you read the decision you see there are some really serious questions as far as whether he was guilty of the murder that he was accused of and convicted of."

Unger said that the conviction was based on the testimony of a single witness, "who basically pointed the finger at him and who had more of a motive to murder than Mr. Scrimo did."

The reversal comes more than 17 years after jurors on May 21, 2002, convicted Scrimo, who managed cooperative apartments in Farmingdale, of second-degree murder in the April 12, 2000, death of Ruth Williams, 48. Prosecutors said she was choked and strangled with a telephone cord allegedly because she had called Scrimo's wife "fat and ugly."

Scrimo was sentenced to a prison term of 25 years to life on June 18, 2002.

At trial and in court papers, witnesses testified that Scrimo and another man, John Kane, had met Williams, an acquaintance of Kane's, at a bar in Farmingdale. After visiting several bars, the two men decided to go to Williams' apartment early on April 12, 2000, according to testimony and evidence. At one point, Scrimo got up to leave and Kane tried to persuade him to stay, at which point, Williams said, "let him go home to his fat, ugly wife," according to the decision's summary of the prosecution's narrative.

That's when, prosecutors said, Scrimo attacked Williams and Kane was unable to stop him from killing her.

Scrimo did not testify but maintained his innocence, saying that Kane, whom the defense described as a reputed drug dealer who had a sexual history with Williams, was implicated in the killing. Scrimo tried to call several witnesses who could testify to Kane's drug dealing and even an instance when he is alleged to have choked a woman, but was blocked from that line of questioning by the trial judge, the justices wrote.

Scrimo appealed to higher courts over the years and was rejected despite claims he was improperly tried on several grounds, including that he was denied the right to call witnesses and had poor legal representation.

But the Second Circuit granted his plea for relief.

"We conclude that Scrimo’s claim is based on clearly established constitutional law," the justices wrote. "We also conclude that the trial court unreasonably applied this clearly established law because the exclusion of the Witnesses’ testimony was inconsistent with state evidentiary rules and because the error, which excluded evidence that would have introduced reasonable doubt, was not harmless."

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