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Heading to Retrial, High-Profile Case Prompts Important Question for Queens DA Candidates


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(photo: map data ©2019 Google)


As the Queens District Attorney race begins to take shape, the most controversial case the borough has seen in recent years will return to the headlines. Jury selection is slated to begin Tuesday in the retrial of Chanel Lewis for the 2016 murder of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano.

A new set of jurors will thus consider the same evidence presented by prosecutors in the first trial. At least one crucial component of the prosecution’s case raises an important question for the seven candidates vying to replace outgoing Queens DA Richard Brown.

This past November, jurors deliberated for only 13 hours before a mistrial for Lewis was declared by Judge Michael Aloise, who was perceived to be sympathetic to the prosecution and Vetrano’s family. Foremost among the evidence from the trial that the jurors asked to review was the videotape of the confession that Lewis gave at the 107th Precinct in Flushing.  

Lewis, then 20, was held overnight at the police station before giving his confession. According to his lead attorney, Robert Moeller of the Legal Aid Society, this was the first time that Lewis—who had attended a high school for students with learning disabilities—had ever spent the night away from home.

Around 6 a.m. on February 5, 2017, Lewis told a pair of detectives that he had committed the murder (although he adamantly denied sexually assaulting Vetrano). After speaking with detectives, a few hours later Lewis met with a pair of prosecutors from the Queens DA’s office. Lewis apparently thought that one of the ADA’s questioning him was his own defense lawyer.

Prior to giving the two statements, Lewis indeed had not yet met with counsel. And while the DA’s office under Brown readily accepted his confession prior to such a conference, it’s a matter of prosecutorial discretion whether to do so.

I thus posed the following question to Brown’s prospective successors: As DA, would you accept a videotaped confession in a serious felony case in which the defendant had not yet met with a defense attorney?

The only one of the seven candidates who did not respond was Greg Lasak, a former Queens Supreme Court judge and former prosecutor under Brown. Before retiring last summer to run for DA, Judge Lasak made initial evidentiary rulings in the case, including allowing Lewis’ confession.

Mina Malik, a prosecutor in Brown’s office from 1999-2014, did not commit to creating a new rule regarding which confessions she would accept. But she did say that “evidence deemed legally permissible may still undermine the public’s trust in the process, and it is important that a DA deeply understands all aspects of a case.”

Jose Nieves, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, views the issue as a matter of oversight. “As a general rule,” he says, “I’m going to make sure that when the NYPD takes statements, they should be overseen by ADAs trained to protect the rights of the accused.”

A public defender in Manhattan for the last seven years, Tiffany Cabán would treat the issue on a case-by-case basis. As DA, Cabán vows that she “will not accept videotaped confession where no lawyer was present under traumatizing circumstances.”

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, meanwhile, holds a similar position. Katz says that “All confessions must be evaluated for the circumstances under which they were given, especially when defense counsel is not present."

The only one of the candidates to promise to create a blanket rule is Betty Lugo, a veteran civil lawyer. “I would not accept a videotaped confession in a serious felony case in which the defendant had not yet met with a defense attorney.” In Lugo’s view, the police “should have advised Lewis of his Miranda rights and waited for an attorney to be present before questioning him.”

Queens City Council Member Rory Lancman opted not to comment.

Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law, sees the issue as a matter of balancing the scales of justice. In Zeidman’s view, “a progressive DA would agree with Justices Marshall and Brennan (in Moran v. Burbine) who said there should be no effort to interrogate unless an attorney has first been provided.”

The next Queens DA indeed has the opportunity to turn the talk of equality into action. “After all,” as Zeidman reminds us, “a rich person already has a lawyer and can more readily invoke the right to counsel.”

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Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. On Twitter @HammerDaily.

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The Loft Law Bill: Inequity on Stilts


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We are individuals and organizations who collectively have been representing, serving, assisting, or employing thousands of low-income families of color and minority- and women-owned businesses residing in Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Williamsburg well before these places were hashtags and hotspots; some of us also are loft tenants. As such, we oppose the bill being proposed in the state Legislature to amend New York’s Loft Law.

We have met with proponents of the bill and recognize the good faith, and human need, that motivates them to push for a measure addressing loft tenants’ concerns. But we feel compelled to raise concerns that the bill, pending before the Assembly and Senate in Albany, and specifically the Senate’s Committee on Housing, Construction, and Community Development, fails North Brooklyn on all fronts of housing, construction, and community development.

Even more concerning, the proposed bill undermines the longstanding goal of safe, decent, and fair housing in communities long needing such.

The bill harms communities long under siege in three ways.

First, in doubling down on the late Vito Lopez’s unprincipled concession of North Brooklyn’s Industrial Business Zone (IBZ) by allowing even more lofts within the IBZ, it threatens nearly 20,000 industrial and manufacturing jobs that pay North Brooklyn’s working, immigrant families double what retail, service-industry jobs do. As Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign reminds us, good paying jobs in the community are not merely an abstract economic issue; they are at the core of what fair housing laws are meant to secure. Such laws exist to ensure that historically ignored and marginalized communities have access to opportunities and resources – jobs, schools, healthcare, and prospects for social mobility – too often tied to zip codes.

Allowing for lofts in North Brooklyn’s manufacturing areas where there are currently good-paying jobs for residents – existing jobs, not those brought in by outsiders like Amazon – threatens employment that pays the rent; by that, they threaten long-term residents’ place in the greatest city of opportunity this country knows.

Second and more directly, the bill is a harbinger of further direct displacement, both in wholesale and retail, for a community already decimated by such. On the wholesale level, lofts change the character of manufacturing areas to residential, leading to an explosion in variance applications. That explosion, in turn, comes to justify zoning conversions for market-rate luxury housing.

This is a key mechanism through which communities of color, which cannot afford the new housing or the increased rents near it, get wiped out in the tide of gentrification. This is the precise pattern that led to the unsuccessful rezonings of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront (2005), Rheingold (2013), and Pfizer (2018), all separate episodes that contributed to a 30% decrease in people of color within our communities.  

This wholesale pattern emerges out of the retail dynamic on the ground, where lofts, wholly unintended by their civic-minded occupants, become part of the market forces pushing low-income families of color out of communities. This is because lofts simply are not the same type of housing as the apartments in which North Brooklyn’s working families of color reside.

Constructed for transient populations, not long-term renter families, and characterized by very high turnover, loft tenancies often have higher rents at amounts unaffordable to North Brooklyn’s low-income families – whose median yearly income is approximately $55,000 for a household of four.

In the same way that unscrupulous landlords and developers prefer market-rate tenants to long-term rent-stabilized families of color, so too do they prefer higher paying loft tenants as a stepstone to the luxury market. This preference leads to all those deplorable tactics forcing out such families and small businesses, which we in North Brooklyn sadly experience every day. The recent New York City Council debates about tenant harassment have made the public aware of this dangerous dynamic.

Third, the proposed bill, in opening the door, for the first time ever, to residential lofts being built within the same structure as heavy manufacturing uses such as amusement facilities (think bowling alleys or batting cages), automobile service centers (think mechanics shops), and heavy industrial uses such as metal finishers and carpentry shops, seems to invite adverse effects and inequity.

The effects that lurk are in the obvious health and safety risks raised by having people live among such uses so incompatible with residential uses. Inequity is a threat because of the outcomes we have observed from these clashes in the past – it is the businesses employing local residents, many of color, who will be displaced to make way for folks who decided to insert themselves among factories with good jobs – are grossly unfair.

To be clear, we do not want loft occupants to be evicted and recognize that they too are opponents of developers, who force them out long-term. In fact, we along with the NYC Loft Tenants coalition stand together to highlight that any bill seeking reform of the city loft law needs to be comprehensive and address our mutual vision.

Such legislation must ensure that our community is protected from the forces of gentrification that lofts unleash and that our IBZ is treated like others, namely preserved to protect the manufacturing jobs that are so crucial to communities. If other IBZs are not part of the loft law, then ours shouldn’t be either, especially given that it is full of jobs that sustain low-income families in our neighborhoods.   

We call on elected officials – especially the Chair of the Housing Committee Senator Brian Kavanagh and Senator Julia Salazar, both of whom represent North Brooklyn, to consider these aspects of the loft law question. More importantly, we call on them to engage the North Brooklyn community with town halls and public hearings to get more input and perspective on the important questions raised by the bill before killing good jobs and destroying what remains of working-class communities in North Brooklyn with bad legislation.

Unlike many areas throughout the city, in North Brooklyn the Loft Law bill raises important social equity questions; so, there must be a process to ensure these issues are discussed in an open forum with residents and workers. In a democratic system, working class communities of color majority voices should not be sidelined in favor of the interests of a minority – our legislative process must live up to its promise and include all voices within our community.

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by Anne Guiney and Edwin Delgado on behalf of Bushwick Community Plan Steering Committee; Gregory Louis on behalf of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A; Alexandra Fennell on behalf of Churches United For Fair Housing (CUFFH); Leah Archibald on behalf of Evergreen Exchange; Jose Lopez on behalf of Make the Road New York; and Rolando Guzman on behalf of St. Nicks Alliance.

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Negotiation Lessons from the Amazon Deal Blow-Up


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Announcing the Amazon deal (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Amazon’s decision to abandon its planned construction of a major campus in Long Island City has revealed deep fissures among New Yorkers. Typical of news coverage and commentary in these highly-polarized times, discussion of the issue has been framed in largely win/lose terms, both from the perspective of politics (progressives versus pragmatics) and the impact on the New York economy and lifestyle (“more jobs is always better” versus “union-busting vulture capitalist billionaires don’t deserve tax breaks”). As with most stories framed in win/lose terms, the narrative unfolds with heroes, villains, victims, and victors.

Governor Cuomo has said he’s trying to revive the deal. In the context of future conversations between New York State and Amazon, as well as other companies, it is worth exploring some of the common and avoidable negotiation errors that were made the first time around.

First, don’t overestimate your leverage. Amazon’s process for selecting a city for its “second headquarters” seemed to be a picture of its leverage. It used something called a “modified auction,” whereby it set up an obnoxious beauty pageant where contestants could come forward with their goods and where the mega-company was at once judge, jury, and rule-maker.  

City and state governments were invited to make their best offer to the behemoth, complete with outrageous tax incentives, promises of infrastructure improvements for Amazon’s benefit, and even pledges to re-name their city. Amazon then sat back, politely said, “Thanks for your entry” and narrowed the playing field to invite a second round of final “bids.” Only then did Amazon actually sit down for a real negotiation with a few finalists urging them to “sweeten the deal” even further before announcing the pageant winners.

On the surface, the process for Amazon sounds great, if you’re Amazon. But Amazon miscalculated the ill-will that the process itself would engender. First, pitting cities against each other, and then, once in New York, bypassing the local City Council’s approval process, had consequences. This was not a one-off auction for the sale of a Picasso at Sotheby’s. Instead, it was a process about who was going to be Amazon’s next-door neighbor, essential to its business, for the next ten, twenty, fifty years. Amazon’s approach galvanized opposition that might not have existed if it had not used such a power/leverage-based approach to the negotiation.  

Second, don’t forget to manage your “behind-the-table” constituency. Many New Yorkers viewed it as nothing short of miraculous that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, two deeply competitive leaders, came together, joining forces to win Amazon and crush the competing offers. It was equally surprising how these two New York powerbrokers, finally united, could possibly lose the deal. Confident of their ability to deliver and caught-up in the competition between themselves and other bidders, the governor and mayor failed to deliver the “behind-the-table” constituencies on their own side who might seek to block or tank the deal.

Great negotiators are simultaneously negotiating across the table while artfully working to build and maintain supporting coalitions behind the table. They are always seeking to build deals that meet their own interests very well, the interests of the other side at least reasonably well, and the interests of third parties who may not be at the negotiating table but who may have interests in the outcome and power to tank the deal at least well enough to ensure the deal would be durable.

Despite its flaws, the city’s formal and cumbersome land use procedure -- which Amazon sought to avoid -- tends to afford that level of engagement to various groups, and to give them a space to challenge and refine a project rather than to tank it. It’s unclear whether the governor and mayor underestimated the organizing power or will of those who might be upset with the deal, or simply forgot this basic negotiation principle. But in failing to work constructively with various stakeholders who might not have had a seat at the negotiation table but who, when organized, had considerable power to stop the deal’s implementation, the negotiating parties unwittingly turned skeptics into spoilers.

Finally, define “success” based on your away-from-the-table alternative. On the one hand, Amazon’s sudden decision to pull out of the New York deal could be seen as victory for local Queens leaders who opposed it. And certainly, they celebrated its defeat and cheered the power of the people to “take their city back.”

At least in the short term, the leaders may have protected themselves among the most reliable Democratic primary electorate. But in negotiation, it’s important to measure “success” not based on the ephemeral, emotional feel of a “win” in the heat-of-battle, but rather based on whether what you are getting is better than what you are leaving behind. If a deal on the table advances your interests (broadly construed) better than no deal at all, then walking away from the deal is not a good outcome, even if it makes you feel good in the moment or if you believe it may help you in the next election.

In this case, the deal was far from perfect for New York or its workers. The city and state had offered $3 billion in tax and other incentives, plus a helipad, to a huge company whose owner is one of the richest men in the world and bypassed the City Council’s entire land use process while doing so. The company refused to provide guarantees around not opposing union organizing, and would have created a significant burden on local transportation, schooling, and other infrastructure.

Could a better deal have possibly been negotiated? Yes. However, it is also the case that the deal that was negotiated would have likely brought in $27.5 billion in tax revenue to New York over 25 years and approximately 25,000 new jobs in the first ten years alone. Of course, these are estimates, but even if they are remotely accurate, the upsides of this deal seem to outweigh no deal by a wide margin, especially since there is no immediate back-up plan to generate revenue or jobs at anywhere near this scale.

While it is clear that individual elected officials believed there was significant political upside to derailing the deal, it’s hard to see how Amazon’s abrupt withdrawal is a win for the people of New York, at least vis-à-vis the no-deal alternative. And yet, parties often reject deals that are better than their no-deal alternative because they allow emotions to escalate, and do not measure success in relation to what no deal would get them.

Not all negotiation errors are avoidable. But these were. When leaders focus on leverage, ignore the creation of possible blocking coalitions, and let emotions get the best of them, even seasoned and sophisticated negotiators will end up with less-than-optimal outcomes. Because the entities in play are one of the world’s greatest cities and one of the most prosperous and growing companies in the world, all involved will survive, even thrive, over time. But from a negotiation perspective, it’s hard for us to look at the outcome as anything but a loss and a missed opportunity for all.

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Robert C. Bordone is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and Daniel R. Garodnick is a former New York City Council member, where he chaired the Economic Development Committee. On Twitter @bobbordone & @DanGarodnick.

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