Judge censured for “slug” remark

The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct has censured an upstate judge for trying to punish state lawmakers for not enacting judicial pay raises and for calling Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver “a slug” for his reluctance to raise judges’ pay.

State judges haven’t had a raise in more than 10 years.

According to the commission, Cattaraugus County Judge Larry M. Himelein disqualified himself in 11 cases involving state legislators or their law firms to put economic pressure on the legislators’ law firms to get them to enact a pay raise for the judiciary.

“Judge Himelein’s actions were aggravated by the fact that he sent out numerous mass e-mail messages to other judges strongly encouraging them to join him in mass disqualification as a tactic in the pay-raise dispute and denigrating judges who refused to do so,” the commission stated. “He also made inappropriate public comments about legislators and, in particular, a party to the pay-raise litigation, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whom he called a ‘slug.’”

The Commission’s Administrator, Robert H. Tembeckjian, said that despite the lack of pay raises, it was unacceptable for the judge “to bring the controversy into an individual courtroom and penalize individual legislators and their clients as a ‘tactic’ or ‘weapon’ in the pay raise dispute.”

The release, determination and relevant exhibits are also available on the Commission’s website, http://www.scjc.state.ny.us

Fed Court Limits Police Use of Tassers

A federal appeals court in California has issued a ruling on the use of Tasers by police officers. The court delved into police officers using the electrical-stun gun for offensive reasons against a fleeing suspect, as opposed to self-defense.

The decision would limit the use of Tasers against low-level offenders who seem to pose little threat and may be mentally ill. The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals criticized a San Diego County officer who, without warning, shot an emotionally troubled man with a Taser when he was unarmed, yards away, and neither fleeing nor advancing on the officer.

The decision

NY courts being flooded with “recession cases”

According to The New York Times, state courts have handled 4.7 million cases in 2009 — the highest number ever —  because of what some consider recession-sparked cases of contract disputes, home foreclosures and family assaults. To read more, click here.

The statewide trend is reflected here in the Lower Hudson Valley, where since 2008, Rockland County has seen a 13 percent increase in civil cases, Dutchess has seen an 11 percent rise, while Orange has seen a 5 percent jump. The cases reflect soaring numbers of foreclosures, divorces, contract disputes and other civil cases outside of Westchester, said Alan Scheinkman, the administrative judge for the 9th Judicial District.

It’s why Westchester County Judge Jeffrey Cohen and Yonkers City Court Judge Charles Wood, who both won the fall election for state judge, are being reassigned to Orange County and Dutchess County, respectively. I wish them both a smooth ride on the long commute.

Judge opens transit meetings to the public

I count this as a victory for the public’s right to know.

A federal judge has ruled that you, me and any member of the public can attend hearings held by a little-known New York City Transit panel that handles thousands of low-level criminal cases that happen on city subways buses.

Click here to read more about the case, which was brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

District Judge Richard J. Sullivan has given New Yorkers a nice gift of sunshine for the holidays.

Ex-wife of Putnam lawyer convicted of having child porn glad he’s going away

The woman who first blew the whistle on Putnam County lawyer Robert Groezinger’s viewing of what she said was child pornography online sent me an email this morning rejoicing at his being sent to prison for 57 months. (Read the story here.)

Joanne Herdick divorced Groezinger a few years ago, taking her daughter Danielle away, saying she feared for the girl’s safety around Groezinger, who served as counsel to state Sen. Serphin Maltese for two decades. Herdick first had suspicions about her husband’s online activity as far back as 2002. She put tracking software on the family computer and called state police, who investigated but were unable to determine if what Groezinger had downloaded was child pornography.

Eventually, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested a man in California on child porn charges. What they found on his computer led them to Groezinger – he had been engaging in explicit online chats with the California man. The feds found 42 images of child porn on Groezinger’s laptop and a thumb drive.

Even though Herdick’s original assertions weren’t borne out by the state investigation, U.S. District Judge Stephen C. Robinson  said he thought Herdick had it figured out years before anyone else. “I find it impossible to believe that the wife made it up,” he said.

Herdick’s email had the subject line: “Wonderful News!” Then she wrote, “Hello! It’s finally come to an end! Justice was served and my daughter and I couldn’t be happier.”

Decision delayed in wrongful conviction case

tjndc5-5b3dn4w4bjklloe86jt_thumbnailWestchester County Judge Jeffrey A.Cohen has not yet decided if he will free convicted murderer Selwyn Days or keep Days in prison for decades to come.

Cohen was expected to release his decision tomorrow, six months after presiding over a wrongful conviction hearing to overturn Days’ conviction for the 1996 slayings of an Eastchester millionaire Archie Harris and his live-in home health aide Betty Ramcharan. Days was convicted of both murders and is serving 50 years to life.

Two of Days’ lawyers now say the case has been moved to Jan. 26 when Cohen, who will be a state Supreme Court justice in Orange County by then, could render a written decision or postpone the decision yet again.

Days’ new defense team says the conviction should be tossed out because of new testimony from four alibi witnesses who, together, place Days in North Carolina from Nov. 19 to 21 in 1996 – the time frame in which the slayings occurred. They also claim that new forensic tests performed on the knife that killed Ramcharan found DNA from the real killers – two unknown men. Investigators had never found forensic evidence linking Days to the crime scene.

But prosecutors said that all of the alibi witnesses had close ties to his mother, Stella Days, and should not be believed. They also argued that tiny pieces of random DNA on the murder weapon aren’t enough to dismiss the jury’s verdict – or ignore Days’ confession to the crime.

Days, now 44, was convicted largely due to a videotaped confession in which he told police he beat and stabbed the pair after confronting Harris about sex-abuse allegations lodged by his mother, a former caregiver. Days’ defense said detectives took advantage of his low IQ and coerced a confession from him that was a “disjointed, undeveloped account” of the crime. Manhattan defense lawyer Glenn Garber, who has taken the case as part of his Exoneration Initiative project, has accused Days’ trial lawyer of incompetence.

We’ll have to wait and see what Cohen decides.

Photo: Selwyn Days

Serious problems found at New York state crime lab

The New York Times carried this chilling story about the lack of oversight at a state-run crime lab. More than 100 cases may have been compromised as a result of ann unbelievably incompetent lab analyst who apparently didn’t even know how to use a microscope (and committed suicide while being investigated).

Law enforcement in Westchester should not be worried, however.

“None of the cases in the Westchester District Attorney’s office were affected by this analyst’s work,” DA spokeswoman Tracy Everson said today.

Click here to read more about the crime lab problems.

Attack of the ringtones

The courtroom of Westchester County Judge Susan Capeci turned into a “Thriller” this morning, thanks to a ringing cell phone.

As you may know, cell phone use is banned in Westchester courtrooms and signs outside each courtroom door asks people to turn off all electronic devices before they come in (Although many, many lawyers sneak in Blackberry e-mails while waiting for their cases to be called).

Today, during a third-degree grand larceny disposition (that’s plea bargain for the non-attorney types), the cell phone of court interpreter Rossana Testino-Burke rang to the famous Michael Jackson song, cracking up just about everyone around. Even the judge had to put a manilla folder in front of her face to hide her laughter as Testino-Burke scrambled to grab her phone and run toward chambers.

Give credit to the young ADA, however — he didn’t miss a beat and kept on asking the defendant questions to make sure she understood her rights and consequences of her guilty plea.

Count me guilty of forgetting to turn off a cell phone. Early on, my phone rang while a woman testified about she discovered her boyfriend’s murdered body in his home. The chewing out I got from the prosecutor is something I’ve yet to forget. It’s now habit for me to turn my cell phone on “silent” so I can still check messages from editors, co-workers, attorneys, etc.

Ah, cell phones … our own little Lo-Jacks.

Terror case conference cancelled

Scratch Friday’s scheduled court appearance for one of the four Newburgh men charged with attempting to blow up Bronx synagogues and shoot down military aircraft at Stewart Air Base.

White Plains lawyer Theodore Green had requested the hearing for his client David Williams to determine if officials at the Westchester County Jail were restricting Williams from properly assisting in his defense by holding him in 23-hour lockdown away from the general population.

But Green filed a letter to U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon that said he had met with the warden and the situation has been straightened out. Williams has been moved back into general population and has the same law library access as two of his co-defendants (Onta Williams and James Cromitie) who are also being held at the jail in Valhalla. The fourth defendant in the case, Laguerre Payen, is being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.

The next court appearance for the four accused men will be April 30.

“Friending” judges and lawyers

With so many people on Facebook now, it was inevitable that conflicts would arrive with certain types of people becoming Facebook “friends” with each other. The Florida court system has addressed that conflict with Facebook-loving judges and lawyers, but other courts (including Westchester and Rockland) are sure to follow with some kind of policy.

Click here to read The Associated Press story about the Facebook controversy in Florida’s court.

What do you think? Should New York courts have a similar policy?