Fight leads to $905,000 settlement

In the category of “whatever happened to that case” … news of a six-figure settlement for Daniel Acosta, a Yorktown man who sued The Katonah Grill in Katonah after he almost bled to death after a fight in the bar’s parking lot in October 2004.

Acosta, 28, was slashed from neck to chin during the fight and sought damages from the establishment, claiming its employees fueled the violence by continuing to serve his drunken attacker after the initial fight.

The lawsuit claimed the business was negligent under the state Dram Shop Act, which states that if a bar sells alcohol to a visibly drunk person, the bar can be sued for damages if that person injured or kills someone else. The case went to trial earlier this year but never reached a verdict. It was settled for $905,000. Acosta’s lawyer said they originally sought “multimillions.”

According to court records, the owner and bouncer of The Katonah Grill brought Acosta’s attacker into the basement and told him to stay there. He was given another drink and took two OxyContin pills, according to the suit, which claimed The Katonah Grill “acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others” by hiding Barrows, allowing him to take narcotics, and “continuing to serve him alcohol.”

Acosta, whose jugular was severed, was taken to the hospital. His attacker was arrested in Queens in February 2005 and charged with attempted murder. He pleaded guilty to first-degree attempted assault and was sentenced to five years in prison. He is eligible for parole in October 2010.

Astor case now in the hands of the jury

tjndc5-5bhyhj5ieugej5y6jw_thumbnailClosing arguments ended yesterday in the Brooke Astor estate trial. Click here for the update.

Astor’s own son and former lawyer are on trial in Manhattan court, accused of illegally manipulating the elderly socialite to change her will. At issue  is whether Astor, who was 105 when she died in 2007, was mentally sound four years earlier when the will was altered.

As the jury deliberates, you can buy Astor’s country estate, Holly Hill if you have an extra $12.9 million lying around. The 60+ acre country estate is still on the market in the Scarborough section of Briarcliff Manor. Click here to see the listing.

Brooke Astor case coming to a close

tjndc5-5bhyfffdwlc12vbr86jw_layoutThe nearly five-month trial over the estate of New York City socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor is just about over.

Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, and his lawyer, Francis Morrissey Jr., are accused of taking advantage of Astor’s dementia and changing her will to bequeath $60 million, which had been slated for charity, to Marshall instead. At issue in the Manhattan courts is whether Astor, who died at her Briarcliff Manor estate in August 2007 at the age of 105, was of sound mind in 2003 when the will was altered.

Click here to read the story about the trial’s closing arguments on the New York Times’ law blog.

Astor was a darling of high society and a hardworking philanthropist who gave away nearly $200 million from her husband’s estate to cultural institutions and causes in New York. But her final years were marked by rapid mental and physical decline, as well as allegations of mistreatment by her son.

Back on the bench in Rockland

Rockland County Court Judge Victor Alfieri returned to the bench in New City today for some  sentencings.  For weeks, Alfieri has been assigned – essentially full-time – by judicial leaders to fill a spot in Orange County, even though he’s been elected to serve in Rockland.  Appointed Court of Claims Judge Catherine Bartlett has been given his spot in Rockland.

Alfieri  took the bench at 9:30 a.m. today – waiting for attorneys and jail inmates to appear.

The judge also fielded  a personal outside call to the courtroom, apparently – based on his  words in hanging up –  from his mother. Chuckles filled the courtroom as the judge flashed some white teeth with a big smile.

One convicted burglar didn’t bring a smile to Alfieri’s face.

James Nelson, 40, of Spring Valley,  has a record of burglaries. He appeared  in court with a cane in his right hand, shackled at the waist and wearing the jail’s traditional orange jumpsuit.

He underwent two surgeries while in jail on his ankle and leg.

Alfieri sentenced him to 3 1/2 to 7 years in state prison for burglary.

Defense attorney Beth Finkelstein, a former prosecutor, advocated for Nelson, saying he was a licensed electrician and had used his time in prison previously to get training and to improve himself.

She wanted Alfieri to recommend he get drug  treatment during his upcoming prison term.  She said cocaine – his drug of choice – has ruined his life, saying he’s been addicted to a variety of drugs since his teen years.

Nelson thanked the judge for a second chance.

Alfieri didn’t seem to accept his thanks.

“You are not deserving of another chance,”  Aflieri responded. ” You are a thief who breaks into other people’s businesses and homes. That’s your contribution to society.”

Alfieri then discussed Nelson’s bad leg, saying maybe that will slow him down for the police if he ever tries another burglary or even discourage him from burglarizing.

Westchester DA helps police tape interrogations

Seven police departments in Westchester will be getting money to record interviews with suspects and others in police custody.

The DA’s office got a grant from the New York State Bar Association to buy DVR equipment for the cops.

The grant, according to the DA’s office, will “enhance the overall investigative and prosecutorial processes” and “improve both the quality of police interviews and interrogations and protect the rights of the individuals being recorded.”

“Recording ensures the integrity of the fact-finding process by preserving accurately the entire course of an interrogation. The recording of statements will reduce false claims that incriminating admissions were made or obtained by coercion or intimidation. Additionally, it will protect the rights of the individual being interviewed and help to increase the accuracy of the criminal justice system,” the DA’s statement said.

Bedford, Croton, Greenburgh, Mount Pleasant, New Castle, Ossining village and Pelham police departments will get the grant money.

Judge under fire again by defense, who claim bias

State Supreme Court Justice William A. Wetzel is being criticized again by defense lawyers again for showing bias toward prosecutors, this time here in Westchester County.

Today, one of the Westchester Legal Aid lawyers for Tyrone Simmons, a Bronx guy on trial for rape during a 2007 home invasion in Yonkers, asked for a mistrial in the case because of Wetzel’s behavior in the courtroom.

Defense attorney Jeanne Mettler told the judge this morning that over the last two days of the trial, which began Tuesday, he has treated the defense “with disregard, if not with disdain.” She made several references to Wetzel’s comments and actions, but he simply referred to the record as being “clear” and denied her motion for a mistrial.

“Look, I’m just trying to do the right thing,” he said. “I respect your zealous defense, but we have to move on.”

Wetzel, who was transfered from Manhattan to Westchester courts a few months ago, was harshly rebuked by an appeals court for the way he treated the defense during the 1998 cybersex torture trial of Oliver Jovanovic, a Columbia University student. According to published reports about the trial, Jovanovic’s defense lawyers accused Wetzel of being biased against their client, saying he allowed the accuser to lie on the witness stand. Twice, defense lawyer Jack Litman asked for a mistrial, citing the judge’s behavior in front of the jury.

Jovanovic was convicted by a jury of kidnapping and sexually assaulting the 20-year-old woman he met over the Internet. Wetzel sentenced him to 15 years in prison, but an appeals court threw out the conviction and blamed Wetzel for “gutting” Jovanovic’s right to testify by misusing the rape shield law. Read more about it here. When prosecutors asked for a re-trial, another judge dismissed the entire case against Jovanovic “in the interest of justice,” especially after his accuser refused to testify at a second trial.

A year before the Jovanovic trial, Wetzel was accused by another defense attorney of allowing prosecutors to hide evidence that could have helped a murder suspect on trial in his courtroom. Click here to read that story.

Back here in Westchester, I guess we’ll have to wait to see if Mettler appeals the verdict in the Tyrone Simmons case.

Castro cancels Labor Day press conference

Apparently Westchester DA hopeful Tony Castro wanted a 3-day weekend, too.

Castro, who is challenging District Attorney Janet DiFiore in the Sept, 15 Democratic primary, postponed his scheduled news conference today to Wednesday, Sept. 9. The reason: “in consideration of the holiday and the reduced media staff.” He kept the time and place the same: 10:30 a.m. at his campaign headquarters on East Post Road.

While Castro’s people won’t say what this news conference is all about, I don’t think he’s dropping out of the race. There are too many “Castro for DA” signs all over the place, including 3 (!) on Westchester Avenue near the entrance of The Journal News. But I wonder if he’ll finally answer questions about the controversy surrounding a $200,000 gift to Castro’s kids from an ill man who made Castro executor of his will. Click here to read the story from my colleague Jon Bandler.