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Trio cleared after 25 years behind bars for Brooklyn slaying

Three men who each spent at least 25 years behind bars for one of New York City’s most infamous horrific crimes in the 1990s had their convictions overturned Friday.

The trio were teens when they allegedly confessed to disgraced former NYPD Detectives Louis Scarcella and Stephen Chmil that they had fatally set subway clerk Harry Kaufman on fire in his token booth in 1995.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement that his office asked for the convictions to be vacated “because of the serious problems with the evidence on which [they] are based.’’

“I wasn’t an angel in the street. [But] like I told the parole board, like I told the judge at my sentencing, it wasn’t me,’’ said one of the accused killers, Vincent Ellerbe, 44, to Brooklyn Judge Matthew D’Emic on Friday.

“For 25 years, I had to look in the mirror knowing that I’m in prison for something I had nothing to do with. Now people look at me on the outside and say, ‘Oh, it wasn’t horrible,’” Ellerbe said.

“The penitentiary does one of two things: It breaks you or turns you into a monster just to survive, and I had to become something that I’m not just to survive.”

James Irons and his great-nephew Michale
James Irons holds his great-nephew Michale after his conviction was overturned.
Paul Martinka

Gonzalez said the men’s convictions had to be tossed for “many reasons,’’ including “the problematic circumstances of the identifications, the myriad factual contradictions between the confessions and the evidence recovered at the scene, and the material contradictions between the confessions themselves.”

Kaufman, a 50-year-old married dad of two, had been toiling in his booth at the subway station at Kingston Avenue and Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant at 1:40 a.m. Nov. 26, 1995, when a man walked up and poured gasoline from a clear plastic bottle into the coin slot, authorities said.

Then as either the assailant or one of his two apparent accomplices pulled out a match, Kaufman screamed, “Don’t light it!” officials said.

Attorney Ron Kuby, who defended the three men.
Ron Kuby, who defended Ellerbe and Malik, pointed out the number of overturned convictions Scarcella was involved in.
Paul Martinka
Disgraced Det. Louis Scarcella has been tied to more than a dozen tainted cases.
Disgraced Det. Louis Scarcella has been tied to more than a dozen tainted cases.

But the fiend lit the match and set the booth on fire, causing it to explode and Kaufman to be sent flying out.

He suffered third-degree burns on more than 80% of his body and died two weeks later.

The case soon drew comparisons to a scene from the flick “Money Train,’’ which had come out in theaters four days before the attack, although officials later said there didn’t appear to be any connection.

Ellerbe had been paroled for the crime in 2020, while the other two men — Thomas Malik, 45, and James Irons, 44 — were still behind bars when their sentences were tossed.

Friday’s Brooklyn Supreme Court room was packed with the defendants’ relatives, many of whom were weeping during the 35-minute hearing.

Thomas Malik embraced by friend.
The trio were accused of the 1995 murder of token booth clerk Harry Kaufman.
Paul Martinka

“Based on the record made before me this afternoon, the motion to vacate the defendants’ conviction … is granted, and the indictment is dismissed and sealed,’’ the judge said.

When their convictions were officially vacated, the three convicts went to hug their relatives.

The DA office’s Conviction Review Unit has helped overturn 33 convictions to date — and Scarcella was involved in 20 of them, said Ron Kuby, who repped Ellerbe and Malik.

Chmil, who was involved in some of those other overturned cases, too, admitted at a 2019 hearing involving another man’s conviction, “We used some questionable tactics.’’

Still, both he and Scarcella have denied any wrongdoing. They did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post on Friday.

Additional reporting by Priscilla DeGregory and Kate Sheehy

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