Feds: no decision yet on death penalty case

Federal prosecutors are in the process of deciding whether to seek the death penalty against three Yonkers men charged in the drug-related slaying of 22-year-old Tyrone Bergmann in January 2008.

Davon Young, Thomas Chambliss, and Gregory Fuller are charged with murder in the case. The U.S. attorney’s office says the case is death penalty eligible. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick McQuaid said at a hearing before Judge Cathy Seibel that prosecutors in White Plains should reach a determination by December. Then they’ll let the U.S. Attorney General know what they think. But it is ultimately A.G. Eric Holder’s office that’ll make the decision about whether or not to seek death in the case. Defense lawyers will submit memos to federal prosecutors (called mitigation submissions) that will make the case why federal prosecutors should forego a death penalty prosecution and seek a maximum of life imprisonment instead. Those are due by October, Seibel said.

There have been two cases in the last five years in White Plains where federal prosecutors weighed the death penalty. In one case, that of Paul Douglas, a former cop from Jamaica who murdered Brinks ATM technician Milton Moran Jr. in a Yonkers robbery, the feds elected not to seek the death penalty. Douglas is currently serving a life sentence. In the other, the feds did seek death for Khalid Barnes, the convicted leader of a Peekskill drug gang who killed two other drug dealers in a Manhattan apartment and robbed them of $20K worth of cocaine. A federal jury in White Plains spared Barnes’ life after convicting him. He was sentenced to life in prison.

How should lawyers dress?

My hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, posted an interesting piece about the appropriateness of attorneys’ attire in the courtroom. Click here to read the story.

It’s a good topic to discuss, now that warmer temperatures have arrived; I’ve already seen the manicured toes of several female attorneys in the Westchester County Courthouse in recently weeks. I’ve found that fashion among female attorneys tend to vary; some wear only two-piece suits; others go more business casual with mix-and-match pieces and chunky accessories; still others wear outfits that could get them a spot on the TV show “What Not to Wear.”

The men in the Westchester courthouse almost always wear suits and ties, but a few of the suits look like they were purchased during the Reagan administration. Some of the ties can get pretty interesting, too, particularly during the holidays. As for male hairstyles, 99% are short and combed, but there is one defense lawyer in Westchester who is still rockin’ the Richard Marx look from 1987.

What do you think about the attire among lawyers working in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties? Get in touch with your inner fashion critic and post your thoughts here!

NYS Senators Look to Revise Drug Law Sealing Convictions

Rockland’s state senator, Thomas Morahan, R-New City, and other state elected officials are looking to revise a recently adopted law that seals records of some convicted drug dealers.

The officials want records unsealed for convicted drug dealers and felons who apply for jobs at schools, day care facilities, and nursing homes. Those records also include people with three prior misdemeanor convictions.

The new law, adopted with the state 2009-10 budget,  prevents prospective employers from learning about those convictions in criminal background checks. Many district attorneys, including Thomas Zugibe of Rockland, opposed the new law, contending it went too far.

Senators and Assembly members are trying to revise the law and pressure the governor.

“It is my hope that the Senate, the Members of the Assembly, and the Governor to immediately pass this bill and sign it into law before this dangerous measure takes effect next week,” Morahan said today. “This current provisions change state drug laws by effectively wiping the slate clean for criminals who might face necessary criminal background checks for positions of confidence and public trust.”

Morahan, who sits on the Senate’s Education Committee, said he’s particularly concerned about those who might be hired to work in schools, where the new provisions could circumvent the screening process, putting children at risk.

Monroe County District Attorney Mike Green said he understood that lawmakers were trying to help offenders return to the workforce when they passed the drug reform act, but the provision missed the mark.

“The concern for offenders must be balanced against the right of the public to have access to information to protect our most vulnerable citizens, and the existing law fails to adequately address public safety considerations.” Green said.

David A. Little, director of governmental relations for the New York State School Boards Association, said the aw undercuts required fingerprinting of all prospective school employees.

“While everyone deserves a second chance after paying their debt to society, the safety of our children must be of paramount concern,” Little said. ” The law requiring criminal background checks on prospective school employees allows for discretion.  An applicant will not be summarily rejected because of a prior conviction.  But school districts must have a complete history of the adults responsible for our children.”

Sen. Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, said the bill will be offered up as an amendment this week to give the Democrats the opportunity to repeal the provision prior to the law taking effect on June 8.

Moving Courtrooms

Courtroom assignments are being re-jiggered at the Brieant Courthouse to allow the U.S. Marshals direct access from the holding cells to every courtroom that hosts criminal proceedings. The first-floor courtroom of Magistrate Judge Paul Davison is not accessible through a secure route from the basement cells where inmates and the newly-arrested are held before their court appearances. That requires Davison’s staff to shop around for a vacant court on the second, fourth, fifth and sixth floors when the judge is on call to oversee criminal presentments, arraignments, and some change-of-plea hearings.

But that is about to change. Davison will move to Judge Lisa Margaret Smith’s fourth floor courtroom and Smith, a chief magistrate judge, will move up to the bankruptcy courtroom on the fifth floor opposite Judge Kenneth Karas’ courtroom. The bankruptcy court will move to the first floor. The moves should be completed some time this summer.

One might wonder why the builders would design a courtroom that’s not accessible from the holding cells.

The short answer is: They didn’t.

The first-floor courtroom was originally built to be an on-site day care center that was set to open with the building in May 1995. But a month before that, Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children in the building’s day care facility. After that, the planned day care center at the federal courthouse in White Plains was scrapped and the room became a courtroom, as federal officials did not want to run the risk of having a similarly horrific outcome should terrorists strike here.