Sweet Ray

Of all the people who work in the Westchester County Courthouse, my favorite has to be Ray Lonergan, the owner and operator of Ray’s Candy Stand on the first floor.

I like Ray because he is a no-nonsense businessman. He’s legally blind but he doesn’t want your pity; he wants your money. I’ve given Ray LOTS of my money. I’m seriously addicted to a brand of cinnamon rolls he carries (Joey’s Cinnamon Danish, to be exact) and his strong coffee keeps me awake through the most tedious dispositions.

My colleague Jonathan Bandler wrote an article about Ray for the newspaper’s “Local Haunts” section in 2005. I’ll let him tell you about my favorite courthouse candy man:

Ray Lonergan began selling coffee, sandwiches, snacks and newspapers at the Westchester County Courthouse in 1995 under a state program that gives the concession to blind vendors. His stand’s current home – across from the jury assembly room and around the corner from the lobby – is a brightly lit space that opened a year ago when the courthouse annex was built. He was originally crammed into a tiny space that fit only four or five customers at a time and left long lines backed up into the lobby each morning. During courthouse construction he spent three years on the second floor.

Ray’s is the only place within two blocks to get a quick candy bar or grab a newspaper and is a popular spot to catch up on what’s happening in the courthouse. Lonergan, 46, finally has the wall space to show off his Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia, old-fashioned porcelain subway signs and autographed photographs from some of the famous people who have passed through on jury duty (Joe Torre and David Letterman) or been witnesses in their own cases (Donald Trump).

“This is a much better spot for me. There’s more room, people don’t have to crowd in,” he said.

Because some people don’t realize he’s blind, there is sometimes an awkward silence with customers who wait with their purchases in hand for Lonergan to tell them how much they owe. But Lonergan’s limited vision lets him know when someone is ready to buy something and he can check the bills they hand him by holding them close to his eyes.

“When I hold up the bill, some people think I can smell it to see the amount,” he said. “I tell them I’m not smelling it, I’m holding it up to my ear so the president can tell me what it is.”

Jury Finds Lebron Not guilty



Less than two hours after starting deliberations tonight, a Rockland jury found suspended Spring Valley Police Officer David Lebron not guilty of two counts of sixth-degree conspiracy.

The jury started considering whether the prosecution proved that suspended Spring Valley Police Officer David Lebron tipped off bars to police raids at 6:20 p.m. The verdict came just after 8 p.m., Executive Assistant District Attorney Gary Lee Heavner said.

Lebron, who has testified strongly and confidently in his own defense, argued the police set him up with false charges in retaliation for his civil rights lawsuit against the village and for questioning the department’s use of police officers whom he called non-certified translators for Spanish-speaking suspects and witness. The village has denied the accusations.

Lebron, hired from New York City Police Department off a Spanish-speaking officer list a decade ago, now faces misdemeanor conspiracy counts – which wouldn’t amount to much, if any, jail time if he’s convicted.

Acting New York State Supreme Court Justice Catherine Bartlett dismissed the two felony charges (with the prosecution’s support)  and two other misdemeanor counts. She ruled the prosecution failed to prove Lebron filed false reports and committed acts of official misconduct. Regardless of the outcome of the trial, Lebron still faces dismissal from the police force on disciplinary charges brought by the village.

Bartlett ruled the jury should determine if Lebron entered into a conspiracy with bar manager Joseph Houston, though Lebron’s lawyer contended no agreement existed and those charges should be tossed, as well. Houston’s inability to remember specific dates and his criminal record became a major issue for the defense.

Bartlett said today that she will instruct the jury not to consider at act alleged by Houston before September 2004 because that’s when the supposed conspiracy formalized.

The  trial – contentious from the beginning – ended with another explosion today.

Bartlett again chastised Heavner and again raised questions about the integrity of the police investigation and prosecution. She said Heavner misled the court during the trial and wrongly attempted to introduce evidence through improper questions. She restricted testimony of some prosecution witnesses as irrelevant and inflammatory.

Today’s firestorm kicked off  on whether Heavner was within his rights to ask Lebron during his cross-examination on Friday if he was aware the FBI had investigated the officer before he filed his lawsuit and came under scrutiny from his own department. Heavner never raised the issue during the trial or called any witnesses to support his question.

Heavner told the judge today that she inaccurately told the jury that the FBI investigation found nothing. He argued that the FBI – which investigatges federal crimes – referred the case to the Spring Valley police and Lebron opened the door to the issue by contending the criminal charges came in retaliation to his lawsuit

Bartlett said she would not amend any comment she made to the jury. Citing a sidebar conference on Friday, she said the FBI looked into it and took no action. “You didn’t present any evidence before this court about the investigation before that,” Bartlett told Heavner.

She then criticized Heavner for asking Lebron if he failed to show up for a hearing on a rape case. She stopped that questioning, yelling at Heavner for testifying and raising an without any foundation. She noted the defendant was found not guilty of rape and claimed Heavner misled the court at a sidebar conference outside the earshot of the jury.

Bartlett, now angry, then criticized Heavner for telling the court that the police had destroyed daily officer activity logs from 2003 and 2004 – which Lebron sought for his defense. He claimed his hand-written logs would let the jury see what he was doing on the nights he is accused of hanging out in bars watching strippers. At some point, however, a daily log of Officer John Vespucci from 2004 was found with his deposition, leading Bartlett to question the veracity of the prosecution.

Heavner responded to a subpoeana for Lebron’s logs and was told that the logs for Lebron and other officers had been destroyed. He said one box from 2004 was not destroyed – which he just learned.  He wanted to have the police records clerk testify as a rebuttal witness about the process of destroying records, but Bartlett rejected that requested.

Bartlett also didn’t want to hear Police Chief Police Paul Modica explain the time-frame of the federal investigation. She said Heavner had his chance to call Modica when presenting his case before the jury.

“I am done,” Bartlett told Heavner. “You are not getting rebuttal witnesses. Maybe you don’t understand. I’m the judge here and have made my decision.”

“Soprano” on trial

Looks like Lillo Brancato got his jury.

That means the murder trial for the 32-year-old Yonkers actor will start on Monday and give him a “Bronx Tale” of his own.

Brancato, who played a small-time thug on “The Sopranos,” is accused of being a small-time thug involved in the 2005 shooting death of a New York City police officer. He’s facing a Murder 2 charge for being an accomplice in the slaying. He’s been held without bail since the shooting.

Prosecutors say Brancato and his ex-girlfriend’s dad, Steven Armento, were breaking into a Bronx home to steal prescription drugs when Officer Daniel Enchautegui, who lived next door, heard the sound of glass breaking and went to investigate.

Enchautegui confronted the pair in an alley, ordered them to freeze, and was shot in the chest by Armento with a .357-caliber handgun, prosecutors contend.

Armento, a 51-year-old who was once a reputed low-level Mafioso, was convicted of first-degree murder for firing the fatal shot into Enchautegui’s chest. He was sentenced earlier this month to life without parole.

We’ll see if Brancato will meet the same fate.

Our Lady of Divine Irony

A California pastor was convicted yesterday in Manhattan Federal Court on charges of fraud relating to a bankruptcy case involving competing plans to re-organize Hawaiian Airlines. A jury found that Pastor William H. Spencer of Oakland lied about having a $500 million trust in a Dutch bank that he could use to finance his plan to bring the airline out of bankruptcy. He submitted phony documents to bolster the lie and dupe investors into backing his plan, according to federal authorities. The name of the felonious reverend’s church? The House of Truth.

NYPD Sergeant arrested by FBI

The feds arrested an NYPD sergeant today and charged him with illegally accessing a computer database containing the FBI’s terrorist watch list. The FBI and federal prosecutors said Haytham Khalil of Brooklyn gave information from the database to an acquaintance to use in a child custody battle. The press release said announcement of the arrest came from U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia, FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly. The news comes on the day that a major conflict between Kelly and the Department of Justice over the use of warrantless wiretaps burst into the open.

Help wanted: court interpreters

This story in USA Today hits on the shortage of bilingual interpreters in the nation’s courts.

I wrote about this issue in January. Here’s the story:

Court interpreters are key to unlocking justice for immigrants

When the anguished woman turned to the man convicted of raping her daughter, it was Rossana Testino-Burke’s cue to be her voice.

Quiero que sepa el infierno que es nuestra vida – “I want him to know the hell our lives are now,” Testino-Burke calmly repeated in English for the courtroom.

Esta pesadilla es de todos los dias – “This nightmare is every day.”

Diez años no es suficiente – “Ten years is not enough.”

Testino-Burke is among dozens of interpreters in the New York court system who become the voice of justice for witnesses and victims who find themselves in a legal system that operates in English. They also are the voice of understanding for immigrants facing criminal charges who need to know what their attorneys and the judge are saying about them.

As the Lower Hudson Valley becomes more diverse, the court interpreters who work in White Plains are busier than ever.

“I’ve had 26 cases myself in one day,” said Sylvia Castellano, the Argentinian-born interpreter in Westchester Family Court. “Every day I’m running all over the place. It’s all day long.”

In the courtroom, interpreters stand inches away from immigrants, softly speaking the words in Spanish or other languages that are being used by the judge and the attorneys in English. Three out of four court interpreters statewide speak Spanish, while the rest represent 19 other languages – the most common being Mandarin, Russian, Haitian Creole, Cantonese and Korean.

The interpreters simultaneously communicate essential information about bail, probation and future court appearances, among other crucial facts. They also stand beside witnesses, repeating their testimony so the jury can understand them. Outside the courtroom, they help attorneys talk to their clients, translating legal documents or interpreting conversations on speaker phones.

The need for Spanish-speaking court interpreters comes from changing demographics. Since 2000, the tri-county area has seen its Hispanic population grow 20 percent, census figures show.

Since 2002, the state has hired two dozen more Spanish-speaking court interpreters. In the 9th Judicial District, which covers Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Dutchess and Orange counties, the number of Spanish-speaking court interpreters has increased fivefold, to 15.

The growing need for Spanish-speaking court interpreters does not mean more Hispanics are committing crimes, said George W. Echevarria, an Ossining attorney and a past president of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition.

“Legal and nonlegal, the percentage is extraordinary small considering the enormous influx of immigrants,” he said. “You’re not seeing an enormous spike in crime.”

Laura Gonzalez, the court interpreter at the Rockland County courthouse, said her workload has spiked since 2005, when she began working in Rockland.

“When I started, I had two busy days,” she said. “Now, I have busy days every day.”

Gonzalez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and Spain, said she handled 92 cases in September – 30 more cases than she had a year earlier. As the county’s head of court interpreting services, Gonzalez said she is hiring more part-time court interpreters who speak Haitian-Creole, Polish, Russian and Mandarin.

“Demands for those (languages) have increased also,” she said. “Not at the pace of Spanish, but it’s growing.”

Being bilingual is not enough. Court interpreters must be familiar with legal and forensic language and be able to simultaneously interpret for long periods of time. But court interpreters are neutral players in the justice system, and are barred from giving legal advice.

“They’ll turn to us and ask, ‘What should I do?’ ” Castellano said. “I tell them to ask their attorney.”

New York employs 330 staff court interpreters who speak more than 30 languages, including sign language. More than 1,300 private interpreters can be called to interpret two dozen additional languages on an as-needed basis.

The New York Office of Court Administration has stepped up efforts to recruit more interpreters. OCA has posted six positions on its Web site, ran public service announcements on the radio and placed advertisements in 300 community newspapers statewide.

Full-time court interpreters, meanwhile, make $43,000 to $57,000 a year, plus benefits. Part-time interpreters make $250 a day – an amount that was just $125 last year – and now can work a half-day for $140.

Echevarria said interpreters are worth every cent, and there should be more of them. He said he has seen judges delay hearings because a court interpreter could not be found.

“I think they do a tremendous job, but I think they’re overworked,” he said.

Todd Burrell, another court interpreter in Westchester, estimated that he is getting called into more than 1,000 criminal cases each year, compared with 700 to 800 cases a few years ago. But he doesn’t mind the grueling pace.

“When you’re in the courtroom and you’re doing your job, it’s like you’re in the zone,” he said.

Spanish interpreters must pass a Civil Service test of their bilingual abilities, both written and oral. The state also requires a written and oral test for more than a dozen other languages. For languages that are not much in demand, interpreters must pass only a written English proficiency test and provide references.

When an interpreter is needed for a rare language, such as Swahili, the court can use an interpreting service to find someone who speaks that language. Those who interpret sign language must be certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Testino-Burke, born in Lima, Peru, said she became interested in interpreting from a friend who worked as a federal court interpreter and encouraged her to try it out.

“I remember thinking I’ll never be able to do that,” she said. “I thought it was impossible.”

After nine years on the job, she still finds interpreting to be a rewarding career.

“It keeps me on my toes,” she said. “It changes every day. Language changes, every day. It’s challenging, every single day.”

The “CSI” Effect

The Westchester County Legislature, which is grappling with the same budget woes as everybody else, is looking to tighten the budgets of the District Attorney’s office and the Westchester County Lab, which does the forensic testing for local law enforcement.

County lawmaker José I. Alvarado, who chairs the legislature’s Budget & Appropriations Committee, shared plans today to cut $500,000 from the lab’s nearly $18 million budget by elminating three positions and reducing equipment, materials and supplies, expenses and interdepartmental charges.

In an email, Alvarado said that 80 percent of the lab’s workload is for the county’s 43 municipal police departments and the District Attorney’s office. County Legislator Vito Pinto, Chair of the Public Safety Committee, stressed the lab’s value and alluded to what many in law enforcement call the “CSI Effect,” referring to the TV show that centers on forensic science to solve crimes.

“In the last few years, juries are now demanding DNA to solidify cases in addition to more traditional evidence,” Pinto said. “That has added considerably to Labs workload.”

Alvarado’s email also said the District Attorney’s office plans to keep its staff at 205 employees, who will take on an expected increase in criminal and civil cases next year. The DA’s budget is $33 million, of which $7 million comes from state grants.

No deal for the priest

The Rev. Patrick Dunne rejected a plea deal by the District Attorney’s office this morning on charges that he stole more than $300,000 from his own church — including donations earmarked for Katrina victims.

Dunne, the former pastor at Our Lady of Sorrows, is facing up to 15 years in state prison on a felony charge of second-degree grand larceny.

The 63-year-old priest headed the Mamaroneck Avenue church since 1991. Prosecutors say he had had a serious gambling habit and stole the money over a six-year period, starting in 2002.

Dunne appeared in Westchester County Court today on a special type of arraignment for people who are looking to waive their right to go before a grand jury and plead guilty. His attorney, Richard Ferrante, told the court that his client would not be taking a deposition in the case, which reverts the case back to local court.

Dunne is due back in White Plains City Court on Dec. 12.

Who’s Not Next?

So, let’s see, the outgoing U.S. attorney, Michael Garcia, lives in Westchester. The last person appointed to the post, James Comey, was born in Yonkers and lived in Westchester during his tenure from 2002 to 2003. (David Kelley, who was the acting U.S. attorney after Comey and before Garcia, was never appointed.) The person considered by many to be a frontrunner at this point to be appointed by President-elect Barrack Obama is Mark Pomerantz, who’s from Irvington.
All three with Westchester connections, all three accomplished, respected former assistant U.S. attorneys.
But it’s safe to say there are a couple of accomplished, respected former assistant U.S. attorneys with Westchester connections whose names will not be floated for the position:

First up is Andrew McCarthy.
The pro: former head of the U.S. Attorney’s office in White Plains, led the 1995 prosecution of the “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 others in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
The con: McCarthy, who left the U.S. attorney’s office in 2003 to work for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank, blasted Obama in interviews and in his writings. In a CNN interview he accused Obama of being “comfortable with people who hate America.”

Next is Ed O’Callaghan
The pro: former co-chief of the Terrorism and National Security Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York who also led high-profile organized crime investigations, including the one that nailed Gregory DePalma, the Scarsdale man and admitted Gambino Crime Family capo, and the one that got Pasquale “Patsy” Parrello, the Bronxville man who federal authorities say is a Genovese Crime Family capo. He was also recently given the Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award for his work investigating the U.N Oil for Food scandal.
The con: O’Callaghan left the office in July to join the McCain campaign. He was sent to Alaska to shut down the “Troopergate” investigation of Gov. Sarah Palin, according to Newsweek .

Big judge

Looks like Justice Francis Nicolai will be sticking around as the Administrative Judge for the 9th Judicial District. The 9th covers Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange and Dutchess counties; i.e. the Lower Hudson Valley.

Nicolai, a state Supreme Court justice in civil court, is 69, and he acknowledged that most administrative judges are asked to step down when they turn 70. So he wasn’t sure if he was going to be invited back when he met with the state’s most senior judges in Manhattan recently.

Apparently the meeting went well, because when I asked if he was staying, he replied, “Every indication is that I will be.” He noted he can’t make any definitive statements until he gets an official letter in January.

A brief explanation about what Nicolai does. Administrative judges assign other judges to civil or criminal courts and can appoint city judges as acting county court judges — giving them a leg up if they want to run for that office later on. He also handles judges’ vacation schedules and approves higher-level hiring of clerks and other top court personnel.

At the meeting in Manhattan, Nicolai gave his annual report about the 9th district abnd his plans for the upcoming year. While acknowledging the horibly economy and New York’s budget crunch, he said he would like a few more Family Court judges to handle the heavy caseload in the 9th. Right now, he has a Mount Vernon city court judge and a Surrogate Court judge in Rockland overseeing Family Court cases.

Guess we’ll have to see if his wish escapes or falls under the governor’s budget ax.