Witness fails to Identify Man in Robbery-Try Trial

The Rockland District Attorney’s Office’s record on trials got off to a rocky 2009 start this week. The office lost far more trials than it won last year.

During an attempted robbery case this week against Raymond King of Nyack, a major  prosecution’s witness, store clerk Asim Javed, declined to identify King after looking around the courtroom. Javed apparently rough it up with King inside a Spring Valley deli last May.

King was sitting at the defense table in a suit-and-tie with his lawyer, Kenneth Murphy, who told me this was the second time in his 25-year-career that he’s witnessed a witness being unable to identify his assailant. The only other time was in the Bronx.

Murphy said Javed presented himself very well in court and attends Rutger’s University. When it came to pointing out King, he changed the course of the jury trial before New York state Supreme Court Justice William Kelly at the County Courthouse in New City.

“My heart did a little flip and my first thought was things were finally going our way,” Murphy said. “Our defense was this wasn’t a robbery or attempted robbery. It was an argument over matches and identification was not an issue. I thought they might try to identify him in some other fashion.”

Prosecutor Dominic Crispino apparently was a bit taken back when Javed put  a hole in his case after testifying for 15 to 20 minutes, possibly thinking this might raise reasonable doubt among the jurors, Murphy said.

Crispino asked for an adjournment from Kelly – a legal term for a time-out – and consulted with his bosses.

Crispino came back to court with an offer of  third-degree attempted assault and a sentence of time served. Plus, King pleaded to a felony violation of probation charge with a time-served sentence.

Murphy said he jumped at the offer and went to his client, who took a plea to a lesser charge with no jail time, as opposed to potentially 1 to 3 years upon conviction. King had been held in jail since his arrest on May 1, but that could not be undone.

Spring Valley police arrested King, 44, of Nyack, in May. He had been working at a local religious school – the former Singer’s catering hall –  when he went into RJS Quick Pick Deli on Central Avenue.

King went in for cigarettes and a soda, Murphy said. Inside the deli, he had words with Javed’s mother, who didn’t speak English, over whether he’d get matches or should buy a lighter.

Murphy said Javed came out, thought King was pushing buttons on the cash register and tussled with King, who ran off. The police were called, hunted for King, caught him and charged him with attempted robbery, a charge brought by a grand jury.

Murphy doubted the case should have been indicted as an attempted robbery, saying the supposed victims and prosecutors over-reacted.

“It was not a robbery, but a fiasco,” Murphy said. ” I do think they over-reacted. Nothing was taken.”

NY law group makes the national finals

Got a press release in my mailbox today from LawHelp/NY Consortium, which runs a website that offers legal resources and advice to low-income New Yorkers (a growing group in these economic times). The group is up for a national award that carries a $250,000 cash price. Not shabby.

Here’s the release, edited for length:

The LawHelp/NY Consortium has been named one of eight finalists for The Collaboration Prize, a national cash award of $250,000 presented to an outstanding model of nonprofit collaboration.

The Lodestar Foundation, in association with the Arizona-Indiana-Michigan (AIM) Alliance, created The Collaboration Prize in an effort to demonstrate how nonprofit resources can be used more effectively to create greater impact.

The LawHelp/NY Consortium, which is made up of 11 legal aid, bar and pro bono organizations throughout the state, was selected from a competitive pool of over 644 U.S.-based nominations.

“LawHelp/NY has helped tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers get access to crucial legal services as well as high quality resources they need to understand their rights,” said the Hon. Juanita Bing Newton, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Justice Initiatives for the New York State Unified Court System. “In addition, it provides a worthy model of cooperative decision-making and resource sharing.”

The Consortium was nominated by Judge Newton, whose office partnered with the LawHelp/NY Consortium to create a Going to Court channel for LawHelp/NY, and promotes awareness of LawHelp/NY among litigants without lawyers.

By pooling resources, the Consortium has made LawHelp/NY into the leading online destination for those seeking help with legal problems ranging from eviction, foreclosure and internet fraud, to child custody, domestic violence and discrimination. In 2008, the LawHelp/NY site had approximately 280,000 visitors and 1.6 million page views.  

LawHelp/NY has provided a model for other collaborations.  Since 2001, Pro Bono Net, a founding member of the Consortium, has replicated the LawHelp model in 27 additional states as part of its mission of increasing access to justice through the innovative use of technology.

The LawHelp/NY Consortium consists of City Bar Justice Center, Legal Services NYC, The Legal Aid Society of New York, Pro Bono Net, Volunteers of Legal Service, Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, Empire Justice Center, New York State Bar Association, Legal Assistance of Western New York, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley and Nassau/Suffolk Law Services.

The Collaboration Prize winner will be announced on March 5, 2009 at a seminar in Scottsdale, Arizona. The announcement of the winner will come at a time when many nonprofits are desperately seeking ways to remain viable in an increasingly harsh fundraising environment.

New wood panels, same old wall

In the Westchester County Courthouse today, I noticed that someone put up lovely light-brown wood paneling on the first floor around the elevators that go up to the courtroom wing.

This is nice and all, but I really thought someone first would have fixed the hole in the staircase wall left by Merced Perez-Hall. I was standing at the foot of the steps when he completely lost it and started throwing his fist into the plaster, screaming the F word the entire time. I dared not move, fearing that the sight of me taking notes would have made me the next target of his rage.

Anyway, the fist-sized cracked dent is still there as a reminder of that Saturday afternoon. And a mystery to those who missed the story.

A lesson in crime you can’t get in a classroom

A group of students from Sleepy Hollow High School got an eye-opening look at the criminal justice system today during a visit to the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains.

They were lucky enough to walk into the courtroom of Judge Barbara Zambelli, who was watching a videotaped police interview with Kenneth West, accused of raping and killing a Pelham grandmother in 1983 and then murdering a young woman in Mount Vernon in 1986. (See Completely Legal blog post from 
Jan. 12). 

The scene played out like a real-life episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street.” West was in The Box with two cops (not sure which one was Pembleton) who were grilling him about his involvement and poor memory of that fateful night in Pelham 25-plus years ago.

Here are a some excerpts of the interview:

Cops: “We want to know the why. What triggered you?”

West: “I don’t remember!”

Cops: “How could you not think you killed her? You killed her. And you had sex with her. Maybe it was cold blooded. Maybe it was the drugs and alcohol that made you that way. You gotta get rid of this f****** demon. Free yourself. Free your soul, man!”

West: “I can’t tell you what happened! I don’t remember being there!”

Cops: “That’s because you pushed it deep down inside. You believe you did it but you can’t remember.”

West: “I want to remember!”

Cops: “You can do it. You gotta dig deep.”

West: “I can’t remember!”

Cops: “You gotta dig it out. It’s not gonna go away. I know it’s killing you. Purge it out.”

This went on for HOURS. After a few minutes, the teacher escorted the students out of the courtroom. I think they heard enough.

Sex Offender Palma Staying at a Nanuet Hotel

Clarkstown school officials today sent a districtwide e-mail informing people that high risk sex offender Christopher Palma is staying at the Day’s Inn on Route 59 in Nanuet. The district was informed by the Clarkstown police, as required by law.

The Rockland Department of Social Services has temporarily placed Palma in the motel until there is a conclusion to his hearing on probation violation charges in Clarkstown Justice Court in New City . A hearing is scheduled to start Wednesday morning before Justice Howard Gerber.

Finding Palma a place to live has been a problem for Rockland officials. A 2007 county law limits where Palma can live in Rockland. The law bars sex offenders from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, day-care centers or any facility catering to children.

Palma spent nearly 19 months in Rockland’s Summit Park Hospital from April 2007 until late November at a cost topping $62,000. State law prohibits releasing a patient unless he has a home.

Since Dec. 1, Palma has been bounced to Ulster County, back to Rockland, then to Manhattan and now back to Rockland. Plans to house him in Stony Point, Orange County and the Buffalo area also have fallen through.

Palma’s probation violation charges include accusations that  he didn’t stay at the private New York City Mission shelter in Manhattan on Jan. 4 and 5 when Rockland Probation Department officials checked up on him. Sheriff’s officers arrested Palma on Jan. 6 when he went to his appointment at the Probation Department.

The probation violations also accused him of going into a Manhattan cabaret that sold alcohol; going to the Palisades Center mall in West Nyack, where children congregate; missing an appointment with his counselor; and not telling his probation officers about having a girlfriend.

He was placed at the Route 59 motel because probation officials didn’t want him staying at the Raintree motel Route 9W with his girlfriend.

Palma is on six years’ probation after being convicted in 2005 of having oral sex with a 14-year-old girl and intercourse with a 15-year-old girl. He also possessed child pornography. He’s a level 3 offender, meaning he also must live under restriction and reported his address to the local police department.

Rockland probation officials and prosecutors are recommending jail time for Palma if Gerber finds him guilty of violating his probation. Monitoring Palma has been difficult and a jail sentence would end his probation and the county’s responsibility.

Gerber can sentence him up to a year or add more restrictions. Gerber declined to jail Palma on a previous probation violation charges.

A year in jail would actually be less time. Palma would get 3 to 3 1/2 months off for time served and potentially another 3 months off for good behavior

If Palma is not jailed, he still would need a place to live and would still be monitored by the Probation Department.

Palma left court yesterday pulling a luggage bag and carrying a back pack – a man without a permanent home.

DA Gets 911 Tapes in Trooper-Teen Case

Clarkstown police yesterday gave Rockland prosecutors all the taped 911 calls about an off-duty state trooper punching a Congers teenager in the face  during a confrontation outside a Lake Road pizzaria  following the officer’s house being egged and rocked.

Prosecutors will likely present 911 calls and other information to a grand jury, which will review the circumstances that led to Trooper Eric Suarez confronting a group of teenagers outside Nickey’s II and punching Joseph Buto, 15, in the face on the eve of Halloween.

The grand jury is scheduled to sit next month.

The three 911 calls sent the District Attorney’s Office were made by  teenagers and a parent, shortly after the incident occurred.

The 911 cell phone calls came in at 8:40 p.m. and 8:41 p.m from a teenager at the scene, Sgt. Harry Baumann said today. At 8:43 p.m., a mother called 911 to report the incident, Baumann said, adding he went through the 911 calls for that day.

“One call from the mother essentially said, ‘A friend of my son was hit’,” Baumann said.

The recordings also confirm previous police reports that no 911 calls reporting the incident were made by Suarez, 37, whom police found within five minutes after the incident outside Nicky’s II on Lake Road. He drove off after punching Buto.

Saurez contends through his lawyer that he punched the teenager in self-defense, after knocking a slice of pizza out of another teen’s hand. He drove up to them in his Hummer and confronted them after his house was egged and rocked. His wife and newborn daughter were home and his wife claims a rock shattered a window near where the baby slept.

Clarkstown police gave the District Attorney’s office their interviews with witnesses and teenagers. District Attorney Thomas Zugibe has said the surveillance tapes from nearby stores don’t  show anything conclusive one way or another on what led to the punching.

The teenagers’ friends and family questioned why Suarez thought those kids egged his house and why he never called the police before or after the incident.

Deb Ryan in court

Sam Israel’s girlfriend Debra Ryan appeared before two federal judges today in White Plains. First, she went before a magistrate judge to waive her right to have her case presented to a grand jury. She agreed to be prosecuted by a felony information document instead. Then, she went before the judge who will hear her case, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas, to get her next court date. But Karas made news by revealing Ryan had been arrested Friday by Westchester County police on a charge of trying to smuggle contraband to her swindler boyfriend at Westchester County Jail in Valhalla. Police said she mailed $300 inside a magazine but it was intercepted before reaching Israel, who was convicted of a $450 million hedge fund fraud. Ryan, dressed smartly in a tan suede skirt and jacket, smiled amiably to reporters and didn’t appear to be a woman now facing federal and state charges that could land her in prison for up to 10 years. She greeted FBI Special Agent Carl Catauro with a pleasant smile and discreet handshake – unlike the over-the-top enthusiastic greetings Israel offered to agents and prosecutors during his court appearances. A federal prosecutor said that plea negotiations are underway in her federal case. She’s due back in state court Jan. 29 to face a misdemeanor charge of introducing prison contraband.  The document filed by federal prosecutors is here: ryandebrainformation

Sam’s Girl

The girlfriend of convicted fraud artist Sam Israel will be in for a hearing in federal court tomorrow for the first time since her initial appearance June 19 on a charge that she helped Israel, of Armonk, flee from serving a 20-year sentence for a $450 million hedge fund fraud.

Federal prosecutors didn’t describe tomorrow’s hearing beyond calling it a “court proceeding.” A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment.

Ryan, who lived with Israel in an Armonk home, was arrested by the U.S. Marshal’s Service and FBI agents June 19 and charged with helping Israel flee from reporting to a federal prison where he was to serve a 20-year prison sentence. Israel faked his suicide June 9 on the Bear Mountain Bridge and went on the lam for 23 days before surrendering to police in Massachusetts.

Ryan admitted helping Israel plot his escape, according to a criminal complaint filed at the time of her arrest. The complaint said she told a deputy U.S. marshal that she helped Israel load a blue scooter onto the back of a recreational vehicle, helped pack Israel’s belongings onto the RV, and drove him back to their Armonk home after he stashed the vehicle off of Interstate 684 the morning he was scheduled to begin his prison sentence.

Israel, 49, is undergoing a 90-day evaluation at a federal medical prison to determine if he is competent to plead guilty to a charge of failing to report to prison.

And the 1st murder trial of 2009 will be …

Kenneth West, charged in the cold case killings of Pelham grandmother Josephine O’Keefe and June Roberts of Yonkers.

Jury selection is set to start next week for West, a 44-year-old ex-con who did time for manslaughter, is charged with raping and murdering O’Keefe in 1983. She was found naked and strangled in her apartment above a bait and tackle shop where West worked.

West is facing another murder charge in the 1986 slaying of June Roberts of Yonkers, whose strangled body was found around the corner from a Mount Vernon strip club where West worked as a bouncer. She was 23.

The lawyers are in pre-trial hearings this week before Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli to discuss is some statements West allegedly made to police can go before the jury. West’s defense lawyer is Allan Focarile of the Legal Aid Society. ADAs Patricia Murphy and Fred Green are prosecuting the case. 

Police said West said told them “his life was over” because he has two felony convictions and would spend the rest of his life behind bars for the O’Keefe murder.

West had served time for another Westchester homicide – the slaying of Allen Edwards, a fellow bouncer at the strip club, Sue’s Rendezvous on Sept. 22, 1987. He was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter in exchange for testimony that helped convict the man who West insisted arranged the killing and also shot Edwards. West was paroled in April 2006.

Chazz speaks out about Lillo’s sentence

So ex-“Sopranos” actor Lillo Brancato Jr. was handed a 10-year prison sentence today that, in reality, will mean he’ll serve another 5 years and get out when he’s 37 years old.

Brancato’s descent into drug addition was the subject of a radio interview today on Q104.3 with actor Chazz Palminteri, who starred in “A Bronx Tale” with a then-unknown 16-year-old Lillo Brancato. Here’s an excerpt of the transcript:

I have spoken to him a few times; he called me a few times. He knows how upset I was with this whole thing because I warned him over the years  that anything can happen if you fool around with drugs. I kept telling him you have to stop this…he did not listen and did not stop it. And it is very sad.

It really a Tragic instance that one of New York’s finest was killed. Daniel Enchautegui-– yah know….wonderful…he is a hero and my heart goes out to his family. And I am sad by that …. I am Upset and mad that Lillo did not listen to the message of the movie…. Saddest things in life is wasted talent and the choices you make will shape your life forever. He said those words and he did not listen to them, did not listen to it.

All I can do is say to all those other kids out there if you fool around with drugs sooner or later you will go down…it is a horrible, horrible thing.