By Theodore Hamm / The Indypendent
“Rabbi Slain in Crown Heights,” read the New York Post’s cover on the final Friday of October 1979. Rabbi David Okunov, a Soviet exile who became a leader in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, thus joined President Jimmy Carter, Senator Ted Kennedy, Yankees’ fiery manager Billy Martin and the Shah of Iran on the tabloid’s front page. The Post reported that an eyewitness saw a “young black man” leaving the murder scene with the rabbi’s prayer shawl.
Governor Hugh Carey stated that he was “horrified” by the senseless slaying and hoped “that the memory of [Rabbi Okunov’s] struggle for freedom and justice and mercy will be cherished by every New Yorker.” Senator Kennedy, then building support for his primary challenge against Carter, offered condolences. “We blame Mayor Koch and the politicians for this, not the blacks,” said Rabbi Elye Gross, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, citing the city’s lack of investment in the blighted neighborhood.
In September of the following year, a Brooklyn jury deemed Carl Miller guilty of killing Okunov. A Black resident of Crown Heights who turned 19 on the day of the murder, Miller would spend the next 30 years in upstate prisons. From the fall of 1979 through the present, he has maintained his innocence. The witness who saw someone running with the rabbi’s shawl did not identify Miller in a lineup, nor did he testify at the trial. That same person, Chanina Sperlin, is now one of the most powerful Hasidic figures in the city, who joined Mayor Eric Adams on stage for his 2021 victory party.
Since 2014, the Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Review Unit has exonerated nearly three dozen people in murder cases, one of which dated back to the early 1960s. But earlier this year the CRU closed its investigation of Miller’s case without interviewing the key figures involved, including the only witness who identified Miller as well as Sperlin, the lead detective, and a then-Crown Heights precinct cop named Louis Scarcella, whose subsequent handiwork as a Brooklyn homicide detective led to several CRU exonerations.
Soon to be 63, Miller has spent his entire adult life branded as a murderer. Will he ever get a fair shot at clearing his name?
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The Morning of the Crime
Just before 7 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25, 1979, Rabbi Okunov was shot to death en route to his Crown Heights synagogue. The murder occurred in front of 808 Montgomery St., near Troy Avenue. The victim’s briefcase contained a prayer shawl and prayer book, but no money. Shawl in hand, the fleeing suspect ran past Chanina Sperlin towards 565 Crown St., a large apartment building with vacant units. There police found the belongings of Darryl Brown, then 17. Brown was the only witness who testified that he saw Carl Miller kill Rabbi Okunov.
Crown Heights at the time was home to the Jewish Defense League (JDL), the militant nationalist group founded by Meir Kahane. Miller told a Daily News columnist at the time of his trial that JDL members hired him to do various odd jobs and that he was on good terms with them. “Why,” Miller recently told The Indypendent, “would I be so foolish as to kill a rabbi two blocks from the JDL’s headquarters when they all knew who I was?”
Cops initially viewed Darryl Brown as their main suspect, but Brown then told NYPD Detective Thomas Sorrentino that his friend Miller was the culprit. Both Brown and Miller belonged to the Five-Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam that many cops viewed as a gang. In mid-November, Miller agreed to participate in a police lineup without first consulting a lawyer. Arrested previously for various low-level crimes, Miller knew his rights.
Defense attorneys caution against volunteering for a lineup. “It’s only advisable if you are innocent and there is no way anyone will pick you out because you were not there,” says Ron Kuby, who has won several exonerations from the CRU but is not connected to Miller’s case.
The two eyewitnesses who viewed the lineup did not select Miller. Louis Fazio, a retired dressmaker walking his dog on the morning of the murder, saw the shooter up close. Sperlin, meanwhile, got a clear look at the person he said he saw running from the scene, but did not recognize Miller. But Brown’s statement to detectives still led to his friend’s arrest.
Both Fazio and Sperlin said the suspect was 5’9” and weighed around 150 pounds, a description that matched Brown but not Miller, who was 5’11”, 190 pounds and a boxer with broad shoulders. When Fazio arrived in court and told his wife that Miller was larger than the person he saw at the crime scene, prosecutor Barbara Newman (now a retired judge) removed Fazio from her witness list. The retired dressmaker then testified on behalf of Miller.
Rabbi Okunov’s family and friends from Crown Heights packed the courtroom. Along with a jury of eleven whites* and one Black, the spectators heard Darryl Brown testify that from a half-block away, he observed Miller shoot Okunov. Despite the fact that sunrise was 7:18 am (20 minutes later than the murder), Brown managed to describe the contents of the victim’s briefcase in precise detail. Brown also said that Okunov had not raised his hand in front of his face, whereas the medical examiner testified that gunpowder residue showed that the rabbi had done so.
Upon first speaking to police, Miller said that on the morning of the murder, he had been in Southeast Queens, waiting for his girlfriend’s mother (who did not like Carl) to leave for work. That became his alibi defense at trial. When the girlfriend testified, ADA Newman tripped her up with inconsistent statements that she had made to detectives.
Before providing the jury with instructions, Judge Sybil Hart Kooper (now deceased) told Howard Weiswasser, Miller’s defense attorney, that his client’s alibi defense “has been pretty well discredited.”
“I wish I never heard the word alibi,” Weiswasser replied. Miller’s claim, however, remained consistent.
In October 1980, Judge Kooper sentenced Miller to 25 years-to-life. Miller spent the next two decades at prisons including Sing Sing and Green Haven. In 2004, Miller first went before the parole board, maintained his innocence for Rabbi Okunov’s murder and was denied release, a process that repeated in his next two appearances.
In 2010, the board finally approved Miller’s release, despite his continued refusal to declare guilt. According to Sister Mary Ross, one of the parole-board commissioners who supported the successful bid, “many prisoners, even if innocent, will eventually say they are guilty, simply to give themselves a better chance at release.” Miller, however, remained steadfast.
*Brooklyn’s Black population in 1980 was nearly 33%, while whites were just under 50%.
Life After Prison
After getting out of prison, Miller found jobs at a liquidation warehouse in Sunset Park and working with seniors in Fort Greene. Released from parole in 2019, he has spent the last few years living with his wife in Warwick, NY, near the New Jersey border. This past March he was laid off from his most recent job as a mechanic at Pep Boys. “It’s pretty tough to get hired when you’ve been convicted of killing an elderly religious leader,” says Miller.
After unseating longtime Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes in 2013, Ken Thompson made a splash by creating the Conviction Review Unit (CRU), which exonerated over a dozen people in his first two years in office. Miller, serving as his own lawyer, asked the unit to investigate his case, placing emphasis on the fact that Sperlin did not testify. In late 2014, CRU deputy bureau chief Eric Sonnenshein cast doubt on Miller’s innocence, asserting that since the “jury obviously rejected your alibi claim,” Sperlin’s testimony would not have made a difference.
Miller’s recent interactions with the CRU were handled by exoneration attorney James Henning, who gathered important, previously-unknown facts about the investigation. Two months before the trial, Sperlin went to the DA’s office to discuss the case. But Henning says that it appears that Prosecutor Newman tried to conceal this fact from the defense, because it made Sperlin an even more favorable witness for Miller.
“Mr. Sperlin steadfastly declined to speak with the CRU,” ADA Rachel Kalman-Blustein informed Henning while closing Miller’s case this past March. “Unfortunately,” she added, “I doubt you would have any better luck than I did.”
Henning’s team, however, has indeed spoken with Sperlin. Private investigator Dan Levine recently visited the rabbi at his Crown Heights home. According to Levine, Sperlin is deferring to the wishes of Rabbi Okunov’s family, who continue to view Miller as the killer of their beloved elder. In his discussions with the Okunovs, Levine says that he has been appealing to their “sense of justice.”
Another significant fact that Henning recently uncovered was the role of future Detective Louis Scarcella in the investigation. After cops first nabbed Darryl Brown, a detective interviewed Scarcella, who was then a member of the precinct’s anti-crime unit that kept track of various local suspects. The degree to which Scarcella helped steer the investigation to Miller is unclear. The CRU did not attempt to interview the notorious detective, although that was also the pattern in the unit’s most recent Scarcella exonerations.
Kalman-Blustein further advised Henning that CRU investigators tracked down Darryl Brown and confronted him “face to face,” but he “refused to speak.” Henning is skeptical regarding that explanation, noting that “in my experience, when a civilian is unwilling to be interviewed, that has not ended the unit’s efforts.”
Meanwhile, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez’s office provided the following statement to The Indy: “The CRU conducted a complete and thorough reinvestigation of this 44-year-old homicide, reached out to all witnesses and spoke with everyone who was willing to be interviewed. Its investigation failed to uncover a reason to disturb the jury’s finding of guilt.”
Henning’s next step will be to initiate a post-conviction proceeding through Brooklyn State Supreme Court, which even in the best-case scenario would take at least three years to complete. By contrast, the CRU can overturn a conviction in a matter of months.
Back in Crown Heights
At the end of August, Miller gave The Indy a tour of the Crown Heights locations relevant to his case. We chatted with three friendly, curious Orthodox women outside of 565 Crown St. Miller then showed us the place around the corner on Troy Avenue that was once a muffler shop owned by Isaac Shocaid, who hired Carl as a mechanic and later attended the trial. A few doors down stands the apartment building where Louis Fazio lived.
After we walked by the murder site at 808 Montgomery St., Miller took us to the area down the block where Darryl Brown claimed to have watched Carl shoot Rabbi Okunov. Even in broad daylight, it was hard to see many clear details.
It was even more difficult to believe that an actual murderer would serve as a tour guide at the scene of the crime.
Dustin Bailey contributed research assistance to this report.
Theodore Hamm is editor of Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn. He writes about New York City politics and culture for The Indypendent and Jacobin. Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.