A welcome improvement in the courthouse

After lots of toiling and tinkering by courthouse technical staff, the Westchester County Courthouse now has an electronic court calendar on the first floor, right past the security check point.

This is a great development. The public can now see the names of all criminal defendants in court on that particular day, in alphabetical order, and learn in which courtroom those defendants will appear.

This is also a boon to reporters (i.e. me) who depend on WebCrims, the state’s online criminal court calendar. The site tracks cases as they wind through the system but isn’t always up to date with rescheduling and adjournments.

Not that last-minute changes were a secret — the list of defendants gets posted outside of each courtroom on all three floors of the courthouse. That is, unless a law clerk decides she doesn’t want to bother with such a petty task.

With the electronic calendar, there really is no hiding.

Cops defend investigation of shooting case

Accused shooter Leon Clement is a free man because witnesses had “selective amnesia” of some near-fatal gunfire in Peekskill last year, a top Peekskill police officer said today.

Clement, a 27-year-old Peekskill man, was on trial for attempted murder and weapons charges after a 31-year-old Georgia man was almost killed in May 2008, when someone walked up to him as he sat in his car and fired a bullet into his chest.

A state judge threw out the case this week, citing insufficient evidence that Clement was the shooter, after hearing the prosecution’s case, including eyewitnesses testimony. Click here to read the story.

Today, Peekskill Lt. Eric Johansen defended the police investigation, saying detectives handed prosecutors a solid case, and that the District Attorney’s office prosecuted the case aggressively. The problem, he said, arose during the trial, when statements that witnesses gave police about Clement’s role in the shooting did not match their trial testimony. Even the victim suddenly had trouble remembering exactly what happened that night, he said.

“I don’t know if there was witness tampering,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate.”

Johansen said that Peekskill police, like other urban police departments, struggle with the “Stop Snitching” culture. He shared his frustration over T-shirts that say “Snitches get stitches” and over music that threatens violence against those who cooperate with police.

“It’s fear of retaliation because of the subculture of violence,” he said. “It’s not a police issue; it’s a community issue. We do everything in our power to keep the public safe.”

UPDATE: Bartlett Reschedules Verdict In Dempsey Case

Acting state Supreme Court Justice Catherine Bartlett today delayed releasing her verdict on a felony gang assault charge against Victor Dempsey, who is accused taking part in a brawl during which a rival gang member suffered 150 stitches across his face and other injuries.

Victor Dempsey

Bartlett rescheduled her verdict announcement for Sept. 1 during her calendar session in the Rockland County Courthouse in New City. Prosecutor Stephen Moore came to work on a vacation day before learning around noon that the judge had adjourned a decision.

Bartlett originally scheduled a verdict for Tuesday, after hearing testimony over several days. The prosecution evidence included Dempsey’s statements to police and surveillance tape showing him carrying a gun inside the building.

Dempsey, 23, of Spring Valley, a reputed Bloods gangsta, is accused of joining other reputed Bloods who attacked supposed Crips members in December at the apartment complex at 150 Liberty Parkway in Spring Valley.

While six of his friends pleaded guilty to first-degree gang assault and received state prison sentence, Dempsey opted for a non-jury trial before Bartlett. He faces more than a dozen years in prison if convicted.

A dispute between a reputed Bloods gang member and Crip gangsta led to the fight in December. All the suspects were caught on surveillance video entering the apartment building, some armed with a machete, knives, a gun, a metal pipe, BB gun, and brass knuckles.

No bail reduction for you

While the last two weeks in August are typically slow at the Westchester County Courthouse, Judge Barbara Zambelli’s courtroom was busy this morning with a long parade of defendants and defense lawyers — one of whom got a sharp rebuke from the bench.

Legal Aid attorney Allan Focarile argued for a bail reduction for one of his clients, who is being held on $50,000. He called the high bail “a ransom.”

One problem: the bail was set by Westchester County Judge Jeffrey A. Cohen, meaning Zambelli, another county judge, couldn’t overrule him.

“I’m not his Appellate judge, sir,” Zambelli said. “I go by the law. I don’t know what governs your behavior.”

Needless to say, the defendant was sent back to the county jail with the same bail amount.

For Schorr: Follow-up response

Dan Schorr, the Republican candidate for Westchester County District Attorney, had a few words for sitting District Attorney Janet DiFiore’s claim that the judge, not her office, was responsible for David Sanchez getting five years in prison for brutally beating his ex-girlfriend in Thornwood last year:

“Ms. DiFiore’s claim that it she is not responsible for Mr. Sanchez receiving a mere 5 years in prison for his heinous crimes is a complete distortion of the law. A defendant indicted for attempted murder is not permitted under the law to plead guilty to any other charge or sentencing recommended by the court without the consent of the DA’s office. A violent criminal will be free in 5 short years and this plea never would have been consented to if I was the district attorney on this case.”

For Schorr: Only five years?!

Dan Schorr, the Republican candidate for Westchester County District Attorney, held a news conference today at the Westchester County Courthouse to condemn how DA Janet DiFiore’s handled the case of David Sanchez, who is serving five years in prison for brutally attacking his ex-girlfriend last year.

Sanchez, who was a psych patient at Sunset House in Thornwood, was dating one of the counselors there when one night, he held her captive in her own car, torturing her for hours and threatening to kill her. Sanchez was charged and later indicted for attempted murder and other felonies, but the DA’s office allowed him to plead to felony assault if he agreed to the five-year prison sentence. Read the story here.

The sentence was criticized by the victim in her written statement to the court, and blasted by those who read the story on LoHud.com. Schorr, a former domestic violence prosecutor, has been a consistent critic of what he describes as “easy plea bargains” handed out by the DA’s office and has taken other dispositions to task, such as the 8-year prison stint given to career criminal and prolific burglar Kahlil Gonzalez.

Janet DiFiore sent out a written statement defending her office’s decision by arguing that first-degree assault and attempted murder are equal under the law:

“This case was aggressively prosecuted. There was no reduced plea in this case. Mr. Sanchez plead guilty to assault in the first degree, a “B” violent Felony, the highest level of crime charged in his indictment. Assault in the first degree carries the same penalty as attempted murder and the same penalty that would have been imposed had Mr. Sanchez been found guilty after a trial. As Mr. Schorr must be aware, on top charge convictions, the Court makes sentence determinations, not the District Attorney’s office.”

Sentencing week in Westchester

Starting tomorrow, five convicted felons are set to receive their prison sentences in Westchester County. As often happens in court, any of the sentencings can be re-scheduled, but here’s the expected lineup:

Wednesday, before acting state Supreme Court Justice Robert Neary

Shand Nash, convicted of manslaughter for fatally shooting of a Mount Vernon man in the throat after a heated argument.

UPDATE: Nash was sentenced to 22 years in state prison.

Adalberto Marquez, a Yonkers taxi driver convicted of sexual abuse and unlawful imprisonment for molesting a female passenger at knife-point.

UPDATE: Marquez was sentenced to 7 years in state prison, the maximum allowed by law.

Thursday, before state Supreme Court Justice Lester Adler

Dequan Duncan, who fatally stabbed a Yonkers cab driver to beat an $8 fare. Pleaded guilty to murder and agreed to serve 18 years to life but then hired a new lawyer to rescind the plea deal.

UPDATE: Duncan was sentenced to 18 years, per the plea deal, but his family plans to appeal.

Friday, before state Supreme Court Justice William Wetzel

David Greene, convicted of murder for the drive-by shooting of a Yonkers man who criticized Greene’s driving and cursed him on the street. Read the story here.

UPDATE: Greene was sentenced to 23 years in state prison.

David Sanchez, who brutally attacked a staff counselor whom he was dating at Sunset House in Thornwood, a psychiatric group home where he lived. Pleaded guilty to felony assault.

UPDATE: Sanchez was sentenced to 5 years in state prison, per the plea deal.

There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name…

…is not Reggie Hammond.
It’s Preet Bharara.
Bharara, 40, has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the next U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, the highest-profile and (many would say) most important federal district in the nation.
Bharara has been chief counsel to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer on the Senate Judiciary Committee for the past four years.
Schumer recommended Bharara to the top prosecutor spot earlier this year and his confirmation was a foregone conclusion. Acting U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin has held the post since Michael Garcia, a Bush appointee and Westchester resident, left the office in December.
Bharara, who worked as a line prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan from 2000 to 2005, rose to prominence as a result of his work on the Judiciary Committee’s investigation of the firing of several U.S. attorneys in 2006. That investigation led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Schumer announced Bharara’s confirmation in an email: “The Southern District of New York will soon be tasked with one of the most important agendas of any office in the country, and no person is better qualified to take it on than Preet Bharara. He has served the Senate for nearly five years with the utmost intelligence, integrity and effectiveness. I know he will do the same as U.S. attorney.”

Oil dumper: Castro’s out, Quinn is in

Accused oil spilling contractor Anthony Castrella has hired a big gun to help him stay out of jail.

Acclaimed Westchester defense lawyer Andrew Quinn is now representing Castrella and his company, Cast Construction, which spilled hundreds of gallons of heating oil in Harrison in 2007. Quinn, a seasoned trial lawyer, appeared with Casterella today before state Supreme Court Justice Robert Neary.

Castrella was being represented by the firm of Gallo, Feinstein and Naishtut, who assigned Tony Castro to be of counsel to the case. Castro, as you may know, is running for Westchester County District Attorney in a Democratic primary against DA Janet DiFiore. When asked about the switch, Castro said he was “only covering” Casterella’s defense on behalf of the firm and that the firm, not him personally, was relieved of the case.

Quinn has the unenviable task of arguing the case before a judge who recently gave Casterella an ultimatum: go to jail for six months or go to trial on criminal environmental charges.

Neary was unhappy that after many months, Casterella had yet to pay the full $75,000 fine that was part of his plea of guilty to felony endangering public health or the environment. If he had paid the fine in full, he would be out on five years’ probation.

Now, he’s paying Quinn instead and facing up to four years in prison.

Casterella is accused of rupturing an oil line during a property renovation at 57 Kenilworth Road in December 2007. The rip caused more than 200 gallons of heating oil to seep into a neighbor’s property, the groundwater and a quarter-acre of town wetlands. Prosecutors said Casterella made no effort to clean up the mess.

Casterella is facing the felony environmental charge as well as misdemeanor charges of falsifying business records and criminal mischief. He could be fined $150,000 if convicted.

Quinn is well-known around these parts as a legal eagle, having gotten two cops off the hook in high-profile cases. One was ex-Mount Kisco officer George Bubaris, who was charged with manslaughter in the 2007 death of drunken immigrant Rene Javier Perez. The other was Yonkers officer Wayne Simoes, who was facing federal civil rights charges for allegedly body-slamming Irma Marquez at a bar. Currently, he is defending a Sleepy Hollow police officer accused of violating the rights of two civilians during separate incidents.

Westchester DA gets $500K to make an “impact”

New York State has handed a cool half-million dollars to the Westchester County District Attorney’s office to help them fight crime with some local police departments.

The money comes from Operation IMPACT, which stands for Integrated Municipal Police Anti-Crime Teams, and targets areas that have problems with violent crime. The District Attorney’s office will use the dough to hire three new prosecutors, a criminal investigator and a crime analyst.

Operation IMPACT is sending a total of $1.6 million to Westchester County, specifically for police departments in Yonkers, Mount Vernon, White Plains, New Rochelle and Greenburgh, as well as the county Departments of Probation and Public Safety.

Here’s the breakdown:
District Attorney – $511,342
Yonkers – $423,222
Mount Vernon – $363,530
Co. Dept. of Public Safety – $132,555
Co. Dept. of Probation – $99,821
White Plains – $24,750
New Rochelle – 20,071
Greenburgh – $20,000

To learn more about Operation IMPACT, click here