Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1234 Sun, 21 Jul 2019 00:47:39 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Heading to Retrial, High-Profile Case Prompts Important Question for Queens DA Candidates https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8347-vetrano-case-prompts-important-question-for-queens-da https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8347-vetrano-case-prompts-important-question-for-queens-da queens crim court gmap

(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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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Heading to Retrial, High-Profile Case Prompts Important Question for Queens DA Candidates Mon, 11 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
'We're in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8326-crowded-race-election-queens-district-attorney-and-reset-prosecutorial-agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8326-crowded-race-election-queens-district-attorney-and-reset-prosecutorial-agenda dwamhvfwoaejtul

Queens Borough President Katz swears-in community board members (photo: @QueensBPKatz)


Uncontested for seven terms spanning more than a quarter-century, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has hung back while his counterparts in Brooklyn and Manhattan join a growing national conversation about criminal justice reform and the power of prosecutors to decarcerate jails. While the retiring Brown is a “dear friend,” former New York Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman told Gotham Gazette recently, “it’s time for a new prosecutor with new, up-to-date modern views.”

Answering that call, six of seven announced candidates in the upcoming Democratic primary are campaigning as the best progressive reformer for the job. Even the exception, self-described “middle of the road” attorney Betty Lugo, has aligned herself with the pack in promising fewer low-level prosecutions and condemning a surge in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests outside Queens courts.

The June 25 election will almost certainly determine Brown’s successor and reset the prosecutorial tone in a vast, diverse borough of more than two million residents. “We’re really looking for someone who works with the community and understands that we’re in a new era. We’re no longer in a tough-on-crime, war on drugs era,” said 18-year-old Andrea Colon, a member of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, one of several criminal justice and immigrant rights groups demanding change in the office.

But Queens is an ideological patchwork. “It's an older voter, especially out east where it's more suburban,” said one party insider, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “They don't like people who jump turnstiles. They don’t want people smoking [marijuana] on the streets.” Former Queens Supreme Court judge and county prosecutor Greg Lasak, who’s pitching himself as the only candidate who can properly balance public safety with reform, has endorsements and donations from a number of law enforcement unions, including court clerks and officers. He's leading in funds raised for this race, with more than $800,000 to date, but trails Borough President Melinda Katz and City Council Member Rory Lancman in money available given their resources from prior campaign accounts.

Conversations with each candidate -- prosecutors Jose Nieves and Mina Malik and public defender Tiffany Cabán round out the field -- reveal real differences: on prosecutorial priorities and experience, as well as how they view the scope of the job. Now that the term progressive has wide application, says Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY School of Law, “we have to push and get into the fine print.”

Prosecutorial Differences
Katz and Lancman are both established politicians with law degrees, strong name recognition in the borough, and early fundraising success. Both formerly served in the state Assembly. “I think there needs to be a change in focus in the DA’s Office,” Katz told Gotham Gazette, outlining her plan for new bureaus focused on immigrant rights, housing fraud, and worker rights.

But Katz -- who recently won the endorsement of the Queens County Democratic Party -- has proposed narrower prosecutorial reforms than most of the pack, pledging along with Lasak only to decline to prosecute marijuana possession cases. By contrast Lancman, Cabán, Malik, and Nieves have all outlined do-not-prosecute lists including fare evasion, drug possession, and prostitution -- in the style of recently-elected reform district attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins Boston.

Judge Lippman told Gotham Gazette that though he doesn’t typically endorse candidates, Lancman, the first candidate to enter the race, “was always the first one to be there to generate support for a new view for criminal justice.” But the City Council member has lots of company now. He, Cabán, and Nieves have all pledged to never request cash bail, on the grounds that it perpetuates racial- and class-based inequities.

Four of the candidates -- Malik, Nieves, Lasak, and Lugo -- tout their prosecutorial experience. Malik, who is originally from Queens, served most recently as a deputy for the District of Columbia Attorney General. She also helped the late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson implement a policy for fewer marijuana prosecutions. Like Lasak, she’s served in the very office she’s running to lead. “Queens deserves someone who can come into the DA’s office, know from day one how it operates,” Malik told Gotham Gazette.

Nieves, meanwhile, emphasizes his recent experience prosecuting police officers at the state attorney general’s office and holding “the system itself accountable.”

Cabán’s status as the only public defender in the race, most recently with New York County Defender Services, has won her endorsements from ascendant groups on the left. “Her ultimate responsibility is to the public and that's what it's always been,” said Zohran Mamdani, an electoral organizer with the Queens branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Addressing a crowd of supporters in Jackson Heights this month, Cabán said she’ll fight for defendants, not convictions. As a queer Latina from a low-income family, she relates to the challenges her clients face. “For me, my decision to run in this race very much so feels like the natural progression of my advocacy for my clients,” she said.

How the candidates approach the prosecution of violent crimes, from murder to burglary, is another useful differentiator. Most say that fewer misdemeanor cases will free up resources to prosecute violent crimes. In endorsing Lasak, Glen Damato, president of the New York State Court Clerks Association, praised “his work putting away Queens’ most violent criminals and his compassion in exonerating the wrongfully convicted.”

When Katz was a child, a drunk driver struck and killed her mother. She said that if she’s elected district attorney cases involving intoxicated driving are going to be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law, in my administration.” She said life sentences can be justified “on a case by case basis” while Lancman, Nieves, and Cabán say they’ll never request such a sentence.

Cabán has been most vocal about a less punitive approach to violent crime. She says her father, a retired elevator mechanic, has struggled with alcoholism and that her grandfather, a veteran with PTSD, was abusive. Incarcerating people for repeat violent behavior “is not changing the behavior,” Cabán said, calling for a shift in funding towards alternatives such as mental health services. "Sometimes that means showing compassion for someone who does harm."

Race Strategy
Increasingly, district attorney candidates are expected to weigh in on political debates outside the courtroom. Lancman and Cabán, for example, have promised not to join the statewide district attorney association, which has recently lobbied against pretrial reforms currently up for consideration in Albany, like open file discovery and the elimination of cash bail.

Everyone but Lasak, who declined to weigh in, told Gotham Gazette they support the city’s commitment to close the jails on Rikers Island. Cabán and Nieves have taken this a step further, saying they oppose replacing them with new or revamped jails across the city. “I don't think we need 40-story super structures to house more people,” Nevies said. “I think we need less people incarcerated.”

Cabán is also refusing corporate donations: a position that aligns her with other DSA-endorsed New York candidates like Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon, who ran an unsuccessful 2018 Democratic primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Doing so, Cabán says, will reassure Queens residents that she’s not afraid to prosecute landlords or employers accused of wage theft.

Lancman is dismissive of the stance. “I am not bringing a knife to this gun fight,” he scoffed. “I am not in this race to lose but claim a moral victory and then see black and brown people terrorized.”

Voters are also considering candidates’ proximity to the Queens County Democratic Party. Its endorsement of Katz is bad optics for both, according to Jesse Rose, founder of the New Queens Democrats, a progressive civic engagement group that has endorsed Cabán. “It was just absurd to me,” he said. “They didn’t have a forum. They didn’t have a vetting process. They didn’t ensure that there was transparency in any way.” (The party did not respond to a request for comment, but has defended its process to the Queens Daily Eagle.)

The dynamic isn’t a major concern for Lugo. A singer by hobby, she says she even performed the traditional Irish ballad Danny Boy at a recent county party dinner. “I think had they interviewed me they would have found me the most qualified, but it is what it is,” she said.

But Katz, who has won two borough-wide elections, seems to be downplaying her endorsement. She plans to implement a grassroots strategy with “a volunteer army knocking on doors,” according to Doug Forand, a campaign advisor with Red Horse Strategies. “She'll be reaching out broadly, and engaging the newer voters who are bringing new energy into Democratic primaries, and we look forward to earning their support."

The groups already rallying around Cabán have proven formidable in this realm, knocking on doors for Ocasio-Cortez and, more recently, protesting the ill-fated Amazon campus in Queens. “I wouldn’t be surprised if their activity [and] endorsement means something considerable, even in Queens, which still has conservative areas,” said Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio.

Regardless of who wins in June, advocates are hopeful that this election will increase awareness across the borough that district attorneys are powerful, and elected by their constituents.

“This not about winning an election,” explained Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit that works on criminal justice reform, among other issues. “It's about, how do you get into the public narrative and get people in Queens talking about criminal justice reform, the power of prosecutors, and how you hold them accountable?”

Gotham Gazette is cosponsoring a candidate debate on March 12 at 6 p.m. RSVP here.

Note: soon after this article was published, DA Brown announced that due to health issues he would be stepping down as district attorney effective June 1. His chief assistant, John M. Ryan, will run the office in his absence.

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by Emma Whitford, Gotham Gazette
@emma_a_whitford

Read more by this writer.

Correction: this article has been updated to clarify that Lasak leads in funds raised for this race, though he does trail Katz and Lancman in funds available.

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'We're in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda Mon, 04 Mar 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Community Demands for the Next Queens District Attorney https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8194-community-demands-for-the-next-queens-district-attorney https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8194-community-demands-for-the-next-queens-district-attorney daocvcdmv4aezxir

Queens DA Brown and several ADAs (photo: @QueensDABrown)


Thankfully, “progressive prosecutor” is the new “tough-on-crime” prosecutor, and the trend has been on the rise ever since hardliner Anita Alvarez lost her re-election campaign for Cook County District Attorney in 2016 and progressive crusader Larry Krasner won his campaign for Philadelphia D.A. in 2017. Over the last two years, district attorney elections from Houston to Boston have promised substantial criminal justice reform, and many across the United States are looking to the 2019 Queens District Attorney race as the next forum for change.

But we know from experience that election rhetoric doesn’t always equal reform. Let’s take a look closer to home. Brooklyn D.A. Eric Gonzalez succeeded the late Ken Thompson in 2017, promising “the most progressive D.A.’s office in the country” as he sought election to a full term. In forums leading up to the election, candidates fought over who was the most progressive, with Gonzalez promising to end cash bail and stop prosecuting fare evasion if elected. And yet, according to Court Watch NYC reports, D.A. Gonzalez requests cash bail every day and continues to prosecute fare evasion. Despite these broken promises, D.A. Gonzalez is celebrated in the media as an example of a good and progressive D.A.

Progressive talk is cheap. Real change is not.

In our borough, the 2019 Queens District Attorney race is shaping up to be an essential test. Current D.A. Richard Brown is a true standby of a bygone era. He charges people with no regard for devastating immigration consequences. He prosecutes people like Terrell Gills, who he knows to be innocent. He forces people to waive their speedy trial rights, requests absurdly high bail, and coerces plea deals. He advocates for Rikers Island to remain open. He fails to hold the NYPD accountable for perjury or brutality. He champions broken-windows policing by prosecuting marijuana possession, fare evasion, and other low-level offenses.

Queens deserves better. It is the fourth largest county, with 2.4 million people, and home to the largest community of immigrants in the nation, making this an election of national importance. On the heels of U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic grassroots upset victory and after Richard Brown’s announcement that he won’t seek re-election, suddenly anything seems possible here. The field is wide open -- at least nine candidates have speculated a run, and they’re all promising reform. But who’s going to make sure the best candidate for the job wins and that those reforms actually happen after a winner is declared and gains power?

That’s why grassroots groups came together to form “Queens for DA Accountability,” a coalition of 19 (and growing) community organizations dedicated to ending mass incarceration in Queens. We are led by people of color, immigrants, and formerly incarcerated Queens residents. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day at 1 p.m., we’ll officially launch at the Queens Criminal Court, and for the next year, before and after the election, we’ll be doing the work in our borough -- teach-ins, protests, educating the public about the role of the district attorney and the importance of this race for us and our neighbors. We’ll be sitting in arraignment courts and reporting out what we see from D.A. Brown’s office and building power with communities impacted by the justice system. We’ll be making public art, launching social media campaigns, door-knocking, and holding town halls.

Though media will cover this race as if an election can end incarceration, we know better. Only by using any means necessary to hold the district attorney accountable to community demands will we truly liberate our communities.

These are our demands for the next Queens District Attorney:

1. We demand a public plan to cut the Queens population in jail by 50% in 5 years.

2. We demand zero tolerance for police misconduct in any form.

3. We demand an end to money bail and a start to open, early, automatic discovery.

4. We demand sentencing recommendations that are compassionate and individualized to each case.

5. We demand a list of charges the D.A. will decline to prosecute. This includes charges related to drug use, sex work, crimes of poverty, and other low-level offenses. The D.A. should not prosecute survivors of domestic, sexual, or gender-based violence for acts of self-defense.

6. We demand a D.A. who won’t try young people as adults.

7. We demand a D.A. who keeps ICE out of the courts. The DA should consider immigration consequences in charging decisions.

8. We demand full transparency. The D.A. should release data about outcomes of the office to the public and hold quarterly town halls.

The Queens District Attorney is an elected public servant. When the D.A. brings cases, the offices does so in the name of “the People of the State of New York.” We, the People, have a right to know what’s done in our name. We’re here to bring real community accountability to the office.

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Andrea Colon is a lifelong resident of Far Rockaway, Queens and Community Engagement Organizer at Rockaway Youth Task Force, representing RYTF on the Steering Committee of the Queens for DA Accountability coalition. Jon McFarlane is a lifelong resident of Jamaica, Queens and a volunteer for Court Watch NYC, which is a member organization of the Queens for DA Accountability coalition.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Community Demands for the Next Queens District Attorney Wed, 16 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Agenda 2019: Queens District Attorney Race Will Center on Push for Reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8078-agenda-2019-queens-district-attorney-race-will-center-on-push-for-reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8078-agenda-2019-queens-district-attorney-race-will-center-on-push-for-reform city council ar rl jw dr marij

Rory Lancman (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Off-year elections in New York City, like the one next year, tend to hold little significance and command minimal attention, with few positions on the ballot and no headlining executive race like mayor or governor. But in Queens, next year will offer a momentous opportunity for voters to make a decision that could dramatically affect the lives of residents of the country’s most diverse county and potentially establish a new paradigm for criminal justice there, with reverberations beyond.

In 2019, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, a Democrat who has held his seat for 28 years, is not expected to run for reelection, and those seeking to replace him have made clear that they would break from his tough-on-crime policies that they say have disparately and adversely affected low-income communities of color and modernize the office. As the top prosecutor in each county, district attorneys hold substantial authority over how the law is enforced, working in conjunction with the police. They have broad investigatory powers and can bring both criminal charges and civil litigation.

The Queens DA’s office under Brown is among the last to embrace a shift in the conversation around criminal justice away from a punitive system to one focused more on rehabilitation and restoration. Brown, 85, has done little to break from the conservative practices of what appears to be a bygone era, especially in New York City and other big cities around the country. The race to replace him is likely going to be a contentious competition to see who can promise the most drastic shifts toward progressive prosecutorial conduct.

Unlike the district attorneys in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, Brown has been slower to ease the prosecution of low-level offenses, including for marijuana arrests and fare evasion, largely ignored calls for reducing or ending the use of cash bail, and has rejected funding that would allow his office to set up a dedicated unit to investigate wrongful convictions. Following the lead of other district attorneys and after repeatedly declining to do so, his office did move to clear hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants for low-level offenses.

In the first half of this year, Queens disproportionately accounted for the number of pre-trial detainees in jail accused of misdemeanors, according to a Gothamist report. Those prosecutions additionally impact undocumented immigrants, who could potentially face deportation stemming from low-level charges. And as the city moves to close the Rikers Island jail complex, Brown’s office has indicated that it would prefer it remain open.

Having remained in office for the better part of three decades, and with his well-documented struggle with Parkinson’s disease, Brown is widely expected to finish his time in office at the end of next year (he hasn’t said if he will resign before his term ends). “My present term does not expire until December 2019 and I will make no decision about the future until sometime next year,” Brown said in a statement.

“He’s been a tough as nails prosecutor. He doesn’t seem to want to implement any progressive reforms to the laws under his jurisdiction and under his authority,” said Jon McFarlane, a Queens resident for 40 years and a volunteer at Court Watch NYC, a collaboration among three advocacy groups aimed at monitoring cases that makes their way through the criminal courts. “He’s had tremendous power over the last two, two-and-a-half decades and he’s only used that power to criminalize black, brown and Latino people.”

agenda19v2 aMcFarlane said that advocates have “new hope” that progressive reforms will soon pass in the state Legislature and that Brown’s replacement will be someone who institutes reform rather than punishment. “We’re looking for candidates that will end the prison pipeline out of [our] neighborhoods, we’re looking for candidates that will end mass incarceration, we’re looking for progressive candidates that will implement bail reform,” he said.

Two Democrats have already declared their intentions to seek the office. The first to jump into the race was New York City Council Member Rory Lancman, who is running as a progressive diametrically opposed to the office’s current policies. “The criminal justice system is broken,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s racist. It’s discriminatory against poor people. It fails to protect working people and we’re gonna reform it from top to bottom.”

The other candidate in the race right now is retired Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak, a veteran prosecutor who says he alone knows how to reform that office since he worked there for 25 years. “The district attorney is not a job for a politician,” Lasak said in a phone interview. “You have to have the experience and the skill because you’re making decisions that affect people’s lives...and I think there’s nobody that has the wealth of experience that I have in doing that and I will continue to do that.”

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has long been rumored to be considering a bid as well but has yet to make any announcements. A nongovernmental spokesperson for Katz declined to comment. And Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former Queens assistant district attorney, might also jump into the race, according to a Queens Daily Eagle report. Malik declined to comment in an email to Gotham Gazette.  

Advocates for criminal justice reform have made clear that no matter the candidates, they believe there must be changes in how the office treats the people of Queens, particularly the communities of color that have suffered the ill effects of a system of mass incarceration. On October 30, advocates from several organizations rallied outside the Queens Criminal Courthouse, demanding those reforms from the district attorney’s office now.

Andrea Colon, community engagement organizer at the Rockaway Youth Task Force, said the next district attorney should not be “a factor” in mass incarceration. “I think anyone can see that [DA Brown] is a defender of the status quo,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Colon said the diversity of the borough should be reflected in the DA’s office and that the next officeholder should move away from a punitive approach to the job. “It’s also about being an advocate, making sure that role is not just simply about prosecuting people who come through your door,” she said. “It’s about advocating for things like legislation up in Albany or in the city that will impact the people of Queens.”

Lancman has spent years doing just that, he said in the interview, previously as a member of the State Assembly and as a Council member for the last five years — in his first term, he chaired the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, which was redesigned by the new Council speaker this year to create a separate Committee on the Justice System which Lancman now heads. He believes he is the most progressive of any candidate in the race, even if those rumored to join the race do so. “As a government official I’ve expressly taken on the responsibility of trying to reform the criminal justice system and have used the governmental tools at my disposal to reform the criminal justice system.”

Though he has spent years in government, Lancman does not have any prosecutorial experience, having worked as an attorney in private practice and teaching at St. John’s University in Queens. He holds a law degree from Columbia Law School.

A vocal critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, Lancman has attempted to pass bills that would make policing more transparent and accountable and has been successful in small ways, in lieu of state action, in making it easier to pay bail. He has tried to make the use of a chokehold by police illegal -- it is currently only banned by department rules — and, after the NYPD refused to release data on arrests for fare-beating as required by a law that Lancman sponsored, he sued the city.

As district attorney, Lancman said he would unilaterally implement many of the reforms that have languished in the state Legislature for years, but which are expected to finally pass with both legislative chambers heading to Democratic control come January -- Republicans who have controlled the Senate blocked many of the bills. Lancman said he wouldn’t prosecute a “laundry list” of low-level offenses “that are giving black and brown kids records for the rest of their lives,” would not ask for cash bail “under any circumstance,” would end the so-called “ready rule” practice that DAs use to deny defendants a speedy trial and implement full open-file discovery. He also expressed support for a bill passed this year by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Cuomo establishing a first-in-the-nation commission on prosecutorial misconduct.

“There’s nothing that’s out of the DA’s hand,” he said, before making a somewhat veiled reference to Lasak. “That’s the important thing to understand. The people who built the Queens DA’s office are not the ones to reform the Queens DA’s office and every criminal justice reform that matters to people can be accomplished by having the right person as Queens DA.”

He continued, “It’s not merely to confront the racism and discrimination against poor people that permeates the criminal justice system but also to refocus the office’s priorities to help working people.” He said he would focus on issues such as wage theft and unsafe workplace conditions, predatory housing practices and tenant harassment, and sexual assault. “We waste all this time and energy prosecuting these low level offenses, fighting to keep people in jail just because they don’t have money, playing games with the discovery rules that make it impossible for people to defend themselves in court, instead of focusing on things that are really making working people unsafe,” he said.

“The DA’s office is unique in that it requires serious preparation and a very detailed understanding of the office and a detailed commitment to the issues the office confronts,” Lancman said, “and I will put that level of demonstrated commitment, experience and planning up against any candidate in the race.”

lasak for DAOf course, Lasak (pictured) believes he is the candidate who brings the most experience to the table, not Lancman. “There’s no comparison in terms of experience,” he said in a phone interview. A hard-nosed prosecutor with more than two decades experience in the Queens DA’s office, Lasak became chief of the homicide division when he was 30. When Brown took over, Lasak was the executive assistant DA of the major crimes division and was later in charge of the homicide investigations and homicide trial bureaus and the special victims bureau, and he set up the office’s domestic violence bureau. “Most of my career’s been dedicated to combating violent crime,” he said.

Heading up homicide prosecutions for nearly two decades earned Lasak the moniker “Mr. Murder.” He wasn’t sure where it originated from — a New York Times profile from 2003, when Lasak was elected State Supreme Court Justice, offered little about the origins of the name — but how does he feel about it? “Doesn’t bother me,” he said with a chuckle.

Lasak’s argument is that he can reform the office because he is intimately familiar with how it works. “To reform the place, you can’t sit looking at it from the outside if you don’t know how it works on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Though his background smacks of the type of stern policies Brown’s office is known for, he is making a softer pitch as a candidate, similar to Lancman’s. He wants to reform bail procedures, ensure speedy trials and discovery reform.

“I’ve been out of that office nearly 15 years. The world has changed, Queens has changed, but the office has to change too,” he said. “The assistant district attorneys in the office should reflect the changing demographics of Queens County, the most diverse county in the world, and the office has not changed along those lines. I want it to reflect the diversity of our population here in Queens, including at the highest levels of the office.”

He said he’d take a “good hard look” at how the office handles low-level nonviolent offenses and bail. “My rule when I was there was, if you’re not gonna ask for jail time at the end of the case, you have no business asking for bail at the beginning of the case, and I will make sure that is a policy of the office,” he said, particularly cognizant of how the enforcement of small marijuana possession cases has impacted communities of color. “Once you stick a criminal record on a young man, you scar him for life. I don’t want to do that. We’re losing too many young men, especially in the minority community...I want to give them another chance,” he said.

He also stressed that, as DA, he would ensure any potential wrongful convictions are reviewed by senior prosecutors and detectives, as he said he used to do when he worked there.

There is, however, greater daylight between Lasak and Lancman on the proposed plan for the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. In September, Lancman publicly debated a Queens assistant district attorney about the closure of the jails on the island -- the Queens DA and Staten Island DA are the only two in the city opposing the plan. Lancman, who supports it, said he will make it a central campaign issue “because where you stand on Rikers and where you have been on Rikers tells us everything we need to know about where you stand on reforming the criminal justice system and what kind of DA you will be.”

Lasak said he has not closely studied the Rikers plan, which includes demolishing the current Queens detention facility and building a newer, more modern one so detainees can be housed closer to their homes and to the courthouse. Lasak pointedly refused to take a position on it, despite being repeatedly asked. “Rikers Island is really not an issue for the district attorney,” he said. “My concern is that people who are on Rikers Island, make sure they belong on Rikers Island. I don’t want anyone sitting on Rikers Island that doesn’t belong there.”

Advocates intend on holding the candidates, whoever should win, accountable for their words.

“I think it’s one thing to say that you’re for criminal justice reform,” said Colon from Rockaway Youth Task Force, “and it’s another to actually act on that.”

Nick Malinowski of VOCAL-NY, one of the groups that make up Court Watch NYC, put the Queens DA’s race in the context of a national movement and growing awareness around prosecutorial accountability and the discretionary powers that district attorneys have at their disposal. “I think there’s a growing understanding across the country about the impact that prosecutors have and that kind of movement and understanding is definitely coming to Queens,” he said.

Malinowski pointed to the recent elections of progressive reform-minded district attorneys in other states -- Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and Rachael Rollins in Suffolk County, Massachusetts -- as an example of where Queens should be headed. Considering the size and diversity of New York City’s second-most populous borough, he said that this election could be one of the most consequential in the city, if not the entire nation -- the Bronx and Staten Island DAs are up for reelection next year, but Queens is expected to be the lone ‘empty seat’ race.

“I think there’s a good case for the Queens DA to be the single-most progressive DA in the country,” Malinowski said.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Agenda 2019: Queens District Attorney Race Will Center on Push for Reform Thu, 15 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Bill to Create Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission Awaits Cuomo Decision https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7783-bill-to-create-prosecutorial-misconduct-commission-awaits-cuomo-decision https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7783-bill-to-create-prosecutorial-misconduct-commission-awaits-cuomo-decision gov andrew cuomo electoral college

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Behind the veil of an unproductive state legislative session where, in its aftermath, the focus has been on what did not get done, one significant piece of legislation that made its way through both chambers and toward the governor’s desk is a bill to create a new, independent state commission tasked with investigating prosecutorial misconduct by district attorneys, including misconduct that could lead, and has led, to false convictions. If the controversial bill is signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat running for a third term this year, the commission would be the first of its kind in the nation.

The legislation passed the Republican-led state Senate 45 to 12 and the Democrat-dominated Assembly 98-46, with members of both parties on either side of the bill. The bill has been lauded by public defenders and criminal justice reform advocates, but has been excoriated by prosecutors, an association of which is calling it unconstitutional and threatening a lawsuit.

The commission would consist of three appointees from the state’s Chief Judge, currently Janet DiFiore, two by the Governor, two each by the Assembly Speaker, currently Carl Heastie, and the Senate Majority Leader, currently John Flanagan, and one each from the Assembly Minority Leader, currently Brian Kolb, and the Senate Minority Leader, currently Andrea Stewart-Cousins. According to the bill, the Governor’s appointees would have to consist of one public defender and one prosecutor, while the Chief Judge’s appointees must consist of one appellate judge and two judges from other jurisdictions. The rest of the appointees must be split evenly between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The commission, which would oversee the state’s 62 district attorneys and their subordinates, would be given full subpoena power for prosecutors and witnesses, be able to request relevant documents, and would be able to conduct investigative hearings against prosecutors accused of misconduct. If wrongdoing is demonstrated, the commission can take several actions, such as a censure or even recommending that the prosecutor be removed from their post. The commission’s findings and recommendations would be compiled into an annual report to the Governor, Legislature, and Chief Judge.

False convictions, and subsequent exonerations, have become so commonplace in New York’s criminal justice system that some district attorney offices, such as that in Brooklyn, have set up whole units dedicated entirely to reviewing past convictions. As of December 2017, the Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Review Unit had requested exonerations for 24 wrongfully-convicted defendants.

“It’s a significant problem,” said Bill Gibney, director of the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Practice Special Litigation Unit. “The last time I looked, I think New York State was up in the top tier of numbers of wrongful convictions that have occurred. And with some regularity, prosecutorial misconduct is in the mix.” It is impossible to fully account for all wrongful convictions. However, the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations placed New York at number four in the country for exonerations in 2017.

The Registry recorded 13 exonerations in New York in 2017, for offenses including fraud, weapons possession or sale, sexual assault, and murder or attempted murder. Eleven of the 13 recorded exonerations involved “official misconduct” by individuals in positions of authority such as police officers or prosecutors.

One of them, Johnny Hincapie, served for 26 years before being exonerated for a 1991 subway killing. Several key witnesses had not been asked to provide testimony in the original case; when allowed to testify in 2015, they stated that Hincapie was not involved. Hincapie further claimed that he was coerced into a confession by a physically abusive detective.

The Registry has, as of June, counted 12 exonerations in New York State in 2018.

A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brady v. Maryland, established that prosecutors must turn over all potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense. And last year, New York’s court system became the first in the country to require that prosecutors turn over all potentially exculpatory evidence to defendants, before trial. Nevertheless, New York’s discovery laws are poorly regarded by advocates and politicians alike; despite the precedents and rules, no timetables for turning over evidence or penalties for failing to do so exist. Discovery reform has repeatedly failed to advance in Albany despite widespread support.

“There have been so many major cases, murder cases, of people staying in jail for years and years and years, and with the availability of DNA evidence now, there’s been a lot of exonerations,” said Senator John DeFrancisco, a retiring Republican who was the bill’s primary sponsor in the Senate, in an interview on WQXR’s The Capitol Pressroom.

“And what happens is, people get exonerated, and in the course of that, when they show by DNA it’s not them, further investigation shows that evidence was withheld by prosecutors that should’ve been turned over by the law,” DeFrancisco told host Susan Arbetter. He noted that taxpayers end up on the hook for an unnecessary jail sentence and remuneration fees, while prosecutors get off scot-free.

“We’ve had the same thing for judges since the ‘70s,” he continued, referring to the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, established through two constitutional amendments in 1976 and 1978, which serves to investigate, reprimand, and/or discipline judges accused of misconduct. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, DeFrancisco noted that judges were “apoplectic” when the commission began, but it has been highly successful.

“After several years, after complaints were brought and it was shown how fair the commission was, right now it's second nature,” he said. “It’s changed the conduct of judges.”

Nevertheless, district attorneys are strongly against the proposed commission. “This legislation is a mistake and quite likely unconstitutional, and I urge the Governor to veto it,” Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, a Democrat, told Gotham Gazette in an emailed statement. “As oversight already exists to address prosecutorial conduct, any attempt by the Legislature to impose additional measures will only tie the hands of prosecutors, and potentially threaten the safety of those we are sworn to protect.”

These existing oversight measures include “grievance committees,” subdivided by appellate division but sometimes with multiple committees per division. These committees investigate claims of misconduct by both prosecutors and defense attorneys, and can lead to censure or professional misconduct charges leveled against attorneys.

But the bill’s advocates say that the grievance committees are not enough. DeFrancisco and Legal Aid both told Gotham Gazette that the committees rarely, if ever, disciplined prosecutors. Legal Aid cited a study, from the Center for Prosecutor Integrity, a criminal justice reform think tank, which found that less than 2 percent of prosecutorial misconduct cases nationwide resulted in punishment. The same study noted 151 cases of misconduct in New York State, found by trial and appellate courts, with only 3 of those cases resulting in sanctions.

DeFrancisco, who has sponsored the bill for several sessions, said that he waited years for the state’s prosecutor association, District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, to provide him evidence of the grievance committees effectively policing prosecutors, but it failed to do so.

The Queens District Attorney’s office directed Gotham Gazette to a letter sent from DA Richard Brown to the New York Law Journal on June 22, in which he stated that both the New York State Commission on Statewide Attorney Discipline, chaired by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, and the New York State Justice Task Force found that allegations of “rampant prosecutorial misconduct” were unfounded.

“Despite each of these findings, the legislature has elected to pass legislation that subjects prosecutors, alone among those who practice law, to a duplicative and intrusive process that is not only violative of the state constitution, but will surely cause delay to the progress of ongoing investigations and prosecutions, much to the detriment of all New Yorkers,” Brown wrote. He is also urging Cuomo, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan and former attorney general, to veto the bill.

The district attorneys for the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan did not return requests for comment.

In a separate appearance on Capitol Pressroom, David Soares, the president-elect of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, raised both constitutional and content-based critiques of the legislation.

On constitutionality, the legislation allegedly circumvents a section of the state’s governing document allowing only the Governor, not the Legislature nor an independent commission, to remove district attorneys from office. He noted that the Commission on Judicial Conduct was established through constitutional amendments, not regular legislation -- such amendments must be passed by consecutive sessions of the Legislature, then the voters by popular referendum.

Soares also criticized the legislation as not requiring complainants to provide a sworn affidavit, “under the penalty of perjury,” and that most instances of “misconduct” were actually not intentional.

He added that if the legislation were to be signed by the governor, then DAASNY would sue the state to block its implementation. The governor’s office, in a statement to Gotham Gazette, did not address the potential lawsuit nor signal an intent to sign the bill or not.

“We believe there should be accountability for all officers of the court, and we will absolutely be reviewing this bill,” said Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens.

DeFrancisco told Gotham Gazette that he believes the governor will sign the bill. “I think he will sign it. The governor, I think, understands this history here.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Bill to Create Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission Awaits Cuomo Decision Mon, 02 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
District Attorneys, City Council Agree Mayor is Underfunding DAs https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6351-district-attorneys-city-council-agree-mayor-is-underfunding-das https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6351-district-attorneys-city-council-agree-mayor-is-underfunding-das district attorneys city council hearing

The five District Attorneys at a March hearing (photo: William Alatriste)


The district attorneys of the five boroughs reasserted their need for increased funding in the 2017 fiscal year at a City Council executive budget hearing Monday at City Hall. Council members—opting to forego heavy questioning of the necessity of this funding—framed fulfilling the district attorney requests as a crucial step towards criminal justice reform.

The public safety committee hearing was the penultimate executive budget hearing, with the finance committee set to finish the proceedings Tuesday before closed-door negotiations lead to a budget deal between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council before the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

De Blasio’s preliminary budget, released Jan. 21, estimated $94 million would be allocated to the King’s County (Brooklyn) DA office, $57 million to Queens County, $10 million to Richmond County (Staten Island), $101 million to New York County (Manhattan), and $59 million to Bronx County.

The five DAs presented additional funding requests during a preliminary budget hearing in March, after which the Council called on de Blasio to fully fund those budget needs in its response to his preliminary budget and listed public safety among its top eight priorities. Of the five offices, New York County requested an additional $600,000, Bronx County $11.5 million, Kings County $1 million, Queens County $4.9 million, and Richmond $3.6 million. The Bronx request was so large because new DA Darcel Clark plans to open a new bureau on Rikers Island, as well as several other significant initiatives.

None of the additional funding requests were included in de Blasio’s $82.2 executive budget, released April 27—a decision Council Member and Public Safety Committee Chair Vanessa Gibson said on Monday she was “very disappointed to see.”

“The City Council is making significant impacts to criminal justice reform, but none of this will matter if the city does not support our District Attorneys,” Gibson said. “Though I applaud the efforts that the administration’s [making] to fund other law enforcement agencies such as the NYPD, it is irresponsible not to include funding for our city’s prosecutors.”

At Monday’s executive budget hearing, representatives from the DA offices, including three DAs themselves, said increased funding would be the only solution to severe problems facing each county, and Council Member and Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland said the Council was “on the same page.” Ferreras-Copeland criticized de Blasio’s executive budget earlier in May when she said it did not “ensure that the shared priorities of both the Administration and the Council are included.”

In response to Monday's comments from the district attorney offices and Council members, mayoral spokesperson Monica Klein said in an emailed statement, "The administration is committed to appropriately funding the critical needs of our District Attorneys, and we look forward to working with the Council and DAs throughout the budget process. Mayor de Blasio has also invested in numerous initiatives to support our DAs' essential efforts -- including an additional $2 million per year to the Special Narcotics Prosecutor and $10 million to the Anti-Violence Innovation challenge -- and launched expansive initiatives aimed at reducing opioid misuse and overdose deaths across the City, in close partnership with local elected officials."

Manhattan DA Cy Vance said on Monday that additional funding would go toward the creation of an Alternative to Incarceration unit aimed at preventing low-level nonviolent offenders from facing jail time.

Staten Island DA Michael McMahon, a Democrat who succeeded Republican Dan Donovan (now a member of Congress) as DA, said his predecessors “did not aggressively pursue” sufficient funding at City Hall. As a result, McMahon said his office is unequiped to combat Staten Island’s rising heroin overdose epidemic and domestic abuse incidents, and currently unable to finance a case management system. All five DAs are now Democrats, like de Blasio and 48 of the 51 City Council members.

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson, represented at the hearing by his chief of staff Leroy Frazer, and Queens DA Richard Brown, represented by Chief ADA Jack Ryan, both hope to direct additional funding towards increasing personnel and improving facilities.

While Bronx DA Clark said some funding would go towards facilities and retaining more staff within her offices, she also hopes to establish a Rikers bureau that targets the prison complex, where she said corruption currently fosters “criminal business as usual.”

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by Aaron Holmes, Gotham Gazette

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District Attorneys, City Council Agree Mayor is Underfunding DAs Mon, 23 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
2015 General Election Results https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5968-2015-general-election-results https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5968-2015-general-election-results Cuomo voting Nov 2015

Gov. Cuomo votes on Tuesday (via the Governor's Office on flickr)


Although there weren't many high-profile races in yesterday's election, New York City now has two new members of the City Council (one in Queens, one on Staten Island), two new District Attorneys (Staten Island and the Bronx), two new Assembly members (Queens and Brooklyn), a new state Senator (Brooklyn), and a few new judges.

On Staten Island, former Congressional Rep. and City Council Member Michael McMahon, a Democrat, defeated Republican Joan Illuzzi to become District Attorney. The seat was left vacant when former DA Daniel Donovan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats now hold the DA position in all five boroughs. 

The Bronx got its first new DA in 26 years as Darcel Clark was elected to the seat. Clark, a New York Supreme Court judge, replaced Robert Johnson who resigned to run for Supreme Court justice.

A Democrat also won the City Council seat from Eastern Queens. Former Assembly Member Barry Grodenchik beat his Republican opponent, Joseph Colcannon, a retired police captain. The seat belonged to Mark Weprin, a Democrat who left the Council to join Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration. The Staten Island City Council seat went to Republican Joseph Borelli, an Assembly member who ran unopposed to replace Vincent Ignizio, who had resigned for a job as a nonprofit leader. Borelli joins the Council's Republican minority, returning it to three members in the 51-seat body. Both Grodenchik and Borelli will have to run in 2017 to retain their seats.

As was the case with the two Council seats, the three special elections for New York City-based seats in the state legislature remained with the same political party. All three state legislative seats stayed Democrat. With a whopping majority, Democrat Assembly Member Roxanne Persaud won a Brooklyn Senate seat over Republican Jeffrey Ferretti, owner of a real estate company. The seat was left vacant when former State Senator John Sampson was convicted in July on federal charges of obstruction of justice and false statements.

The two Assembly seats were also won by Democrats. Pamela Harris, a retired corrections officer, defeated Republican Lucretia Regina-Potter to become the only African-American to represent a majority white district in the city. The district covers parts of southern Brooklyn and the post was left vacant when the former rep resigned to take a private-sector job.

In the special election to complete the term of Democrat William Scarborough -- who was forced from office after accepting a plea on corruption charges -- Democrat Alicia Hyndman beat her opponent with a wide margin. Hyndman, Harris, and Regina-Potter will all have to run for re-election next year, in 2016 when all of the state legislature goes up for election, to retain their seats.

In one of many unopposed races, Democrat Richard Brown won the seat of Queens DA for the seventh consecutive term.

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by Samar Khrushid
@GothamGazette

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2015 General Election Results Wed, 04 Nov 2015 12:17:43 +0000