Goodbye and good luck Stephen Pittari

Today is the last day of work for longtime Legal Aid chief Stephen J. Pittari (left). He ends a 42-year career at the Westchester County Legal Aid Society — all but four of those years as chief attorney.

There are few people I meet in this line of work whom I would describe as delightful. Pittari is one of them. He not only is intelligent, but also has that rarest of human qualities — charisma — that has earned him the reputation as one of the most respected and admired lawyers in the state. The people who work for him are fiercely loyal and completely devoted, and even prosecutors give him kudos as a worthy adversary.

I wish him well in his future years. And if he ever writes that book, I’ll be sure to buy a copy.

Summer Justice Academy for Young Women kicks off third year

The New York Chapter of the National Association of Women Judge and Pace Law School are launching the third annual Summer Justice Academy for Young Women with a fundraiser tomorrow for the program, which will take place on July 11-15.

The Justice Academy is a one-week program that introduces 40 minority and disadvantaged high school students from Westchester County and New York City to the law, to inspire them to pursue careers in the legal field. Students are taught primarily by women judges, law professors and practicing lawyers who volunteer their time. Pace faculty also serve as professional and academic role models.

The girls typically tour the Westchester County Courthouse to meet judges and prosecutors This year, for the first time, the girls are going to Washington, D.C. to tour the U.S. Supreme Court, the Capitol and possibly the White House.

“In its two years of operation, the Justice Academy has already motivated students who have gone on to college, and who now credit the Justice Academy with exposing them to the tremendous opportunities of a legal education and giving them the confidence and inspiration to pursue careers in law,” organizers said in a written statement.

The fundraising reception will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 29, at Shenorock Shore Club in Rye. To RSVP or to inquire about making a donation, call Judy Jaeger at Pace Law School at (914) 422-4407.

Busy court day in Westchester

Summers are typically slow in the Westchester County Courthouse, but today featured three high-profile arraignments and a lesser-known sentencing.

The first was the arraignment of two Yonkers men charged with fatally beating Robert Lopez, the brother of a Yonkers mayoral aide. The men had been arrested on assault charges for the lethal May 17 attack, but the charges were upgraded to manslaughter after he died 10 days later.

The second arraignment was of a now-suspended correction officer accused of raping a prisoner at the Taconic Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison for women in Bedford Hills. The suspect, Fredrick Branyah, a 61-year-old married father from Yonkers, was accused of raping another inmate there in 2003 but acquitted at trial and returned to work a year later.

Arraignment #3 was of the former New Rochelle public works supervisor on 66 (!) charges of fraud. Richard Fevang, who oversaw the maintenance and repair of the city’s vehicles, is accused of doctoring documents to steer contracts to favored businesses.

Lastly, a story we’ve never reported. A 26-year-old New Rochelle man was sentenced to serve two years in prison for punching a 71-year-old cab driver in New Rochelle. Fernando Marquez pleaded guilty to second-degree assault in the attack. Here’s the criminal complaint from the Westchester District Attorney’s office, edited for length and for language:

On November 14, 2010 at approximately 2:30 a.m., the victim picked up the defendant at Main St. and Centre Ave. in New Rochelle.  The defendant requested a ride to 25 Drake Ave., and while in route to his destination, he fell asleep. When they arrived at 25 Drake Ave., the victim woke up the defendant and informed him they were at his destination. The defendant told the victim that was not the location and to keep driving.  The victim drove a little further and pulled over. As the defendant started to open the door, the victim reminded him that he needed to pay for the ride. The defendant handed the victim money for his fare and the victim gave him change.

At this point, the defendant started to doze off in the back seat and the victim said to him “friend, I’m leaving its time to go.”  The defendant became engaged and stated, “don’t kick me out.” The victim then insisted that the defendant exit his vehicle, at which point, the defendant began assailing the victim with verbal insults as he stated that he was going to kill the victim.  The defendant told the victim he was not going to kick him out of the taxi and put his arm through the middle partition, which separates the passengers in the back from the driver in the front. Eventually, the defendant exited the vehicle, but left the passenger door open.  He then proceeded to the driver’s side of the vehicle and opened the driver’s door.  The defendant continued to insult the driver and punched him in the face several times, which broke the victim’s nose.  During this attack, the defendant attempted to grab the victim’s fanny pack (which contained his money).

The victim was eventually able to get away from the defendant and drive away.  Once he was clearly away from the defendant, the victim called the police, who responded to the scene.  The victim was transported to Sound Shore Medical Center where he received treatment for his broken nose and other injuries.

Marquez apologized in court, but Westchester County Judge Barry Warhit admonished him for attacking the driver because he lost patience with him. “I don’t know what you could have been thinking,” the judge said. He sentenced Marquez to 18 months of supervision after he is released.

Job re-entry program at Pace turns five

Alicia Florrick in “The Good Wife” may have been able to jump back into the work force after quitting law for motherhood, but in the real world, re-entering law after a long hiatus is a challenge.

This is why Pace Law School created a program called New Directions. It helps women and men with law degrees get back into the profession after a long absence, and it helps those who took jobs in other fields find a career in law. It also trains practicing attorneys to take on other areas of law.

Since holding its first session of 13 men and women in 2007, New Directions has grown and improved. According to the law school, there are now more workshops and more externship sponsors. Two sessions are held each year; one in Westchester, the other in New York City. More than 100 lawyers have participated. Here are two testimonials, given to the law school:

“After I spent over a decade raising a family and being an active community member, it was New Directions that gave me the confidence and helped me obtain the credentials to return to fulfilling employment as an attorney. Essentially the training and contacts provided by New Directions gave me access to a volunteer position which in turn allowed me to develop experience and additional personal contacts without which I could not have competed successfully for my current job. Notably, I learned of the availability of my current position from a posting put up by New Directions for its graduates on Linked In!”
—Beth Propper, Westchester County

“I knew I wanted to restart my career, but after having spent 9 years at home raising my children, I felt I no longer had the resources and confidence to do so. New Directions provided me with important skills, contacts and experiences, without which I would not have had the confidence to pursue my current position at a law firm. Also, through my externship I discovered a new area of law that I have incorporated into my practice. I highly recommend New Directions!”
—Debra Stewart, Westchester County

New Directions staff, alumni and other supporters will celebrate the program’s fifth anniversary on June 29 at the Judicial Institute on the Pace Law School Campus in White Plains. Apparently it has more than 100 reasons to celebrate its success.

DiGuglielmo conviction upheld in ’96 deli shooting

Former New York City Police Officer Richard DiGuglielmo (left) lost any chance of getting out of prison before 2019 today. That’s because the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, rejected his bid to have his conviction overturned.

In a tersely worded two-page statement, the court found there was “no reasonable possibility” that DiGuglielmo would have been found not guilty had a jury been told that a witness felt he had been coerced to change his initial account that DiGgugliemo was justified in shooting Charles Campbell.

“We are pleased that our State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, found no merit to Mr. DiGuglielmo’s appeal and unanimously affirmed what has been our position all along, that Mr. DiGuglielmo’s murder conviction was properly obtained and the County Court was wrong in vacating the conviction,” Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore said in a written statement today. “The jury in the case soundly rejected the defendant’s claim of justification after hearing eyewitness testimony from twelve people during his trial that the victim Charles Campbell was backing away when he was shot three times by Mr. DiGuglielmo. With today’s order, the Court of Appeals has rejected all claims against that the conviction.”

The Campbell family will be releasing a statement later today.

DiGuglielmo, who was convicted of second-degree murder, will be eligible for parole in eight years. He was released briefly in September 2008 after a former Westchester County court judge threw out his conviction, but was sent back to prison a year ago after an appeals court reinstated it.

Paroled killer indicted for holiday slaying

For six months, Reginald Powell has sat in the Westchester County jail on theft and drug charges, while investigators built a murder case on him.

Yesterday, Powell, who served 24 years for killing a cab driver in the 1980s, was indicted on first- and second-degree murder charges in the December stabbing death of Jennifer Katz, a Mamaroneck mother who used to date Powells’ brother.

He’ll be arraigned on Monday in Westchester County Court.

Photo: Reginald Powell

Mount Vernon mom arraigned on manslaughter, strangulation charges

A 28-year-old Mount Vernon mother pleaded not guilty today to charges that she strangled her boyfriend in March and waited until the next day to call for help.

Tywana Kerr (left) was indicted last week on a charge of second-degree manslaughter and first-degree strangulation, both felonies, in the death of Anthony “Rickie” Lowery. The 43-year-old father of three was found on Kerr’s bed the morning of March 15.

According to court papers, Kerr told police that they had an argument about him spending the night. She said the argument turned physical and he collapsed to the floor. She then pulled him onto the bed and went to sleep. The next morning, Kerr said she called 911 after saying Lowery was unresponsive, the court papers stated.

She was arrested later that day.  Police said she admitted on video to choking Lowery.

Kerr, the mother of a 2- and a 4-year-old, is being held without bail. She faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Members of Lowery’s family have said the two had been dating for months and they were unaware of any domestic violence in the relationship. Lowery, who also lived in Mount Vernon, worked in construction and landscaping for local churches, according to his family. He has a son, 22, and two daughters, ages 12 and 13.

The strangulation charge is among three criminal charges that took effect in November to address the choking of victims. Criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation is a misdemeanor, and first- and second-degree strangulation, are both felonies. Under prior law, someone could be choked nearly to death, but the attacker could go unpunished if there were no visible physical injuries. Now, an attacker can be charged after choking or suffocating someone, regardless of injury.

The new laws, targeted at domestic violence, has resulted in thousands of arrests in recent months, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Greenburgh judge chosen as VP of state bar board

She may not have won over Greenburgh Democrats, but Greenburgh Town Justice Arlene Gordon-Oliver (left) has been elected vice-president for the Ninth Judicial District on the Executive Committee of the New York State Bar Association. Founded in 1876, the group is the largest voluntary state bar association in the United States, with 77,000 members.

Gordon-Oliver, 47, is the managing partner of Arlene Gordon-Oliver PC, which focuses on bankruptcy law. She had been a partner at Rattet, Pasternak & Gordon-Oliver. She is a member of the State Bar’s House of Delegates, Business Law Section and the Special Committee to Review the Code of Judicial Conduct. She is also member of the National Bar Association’s Board of Governors.

A past president of the Association of Black Lawyers of Westchester County, Gordon-Oliver graduated summa cum laude from Baruch College and earned her law degree from Fordham University School of Law.

Gordon-Oliver, born in Jamaica, was appointed in 2007 to fill a judicial vacancy in Greenburgh Town Court, making it the only town court in Westchester to have three women on the bench. We’ll see if this new position helps to keep her judgeship, in light of the town court’s recent traffic ticket debacle.

Life without parole for killer of pregnant woman

Emotional day at the Westchester County Courthouse today, as Kasem Cunningham (left) is sentenced for fatally stabbing a pregnant woman 65 times during a home invasion.

Half the courtroom was filled with family, friends and supporters of victim Denisha McDuffy, who was two months pregnant when she was murdered. Cunningham offered no explanation for the brutal attack, but told county probation officers interviewing him for a pre-sentencing report that he was angry with his girlfriend who he suspected of cheating on him, and took out his anger on McDuffy.

The victim’s family, as well as prosecutors, urged the judge to give Cunningham the maximum sentence — life without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. The judge, who had considered a 25-to-life sentence after Cunningham pleaded guilty, handed down the harsher sentence after reading reports from a psychologist and social worker, hearing victim impact statements from the woman’s family, and listening to Cunningham himself.

The deliberate, intentional and brutal actions of this defendant began as a burglary and ended with the senseless and tragic death of an innocent young woman,” District Attorney Janet DiFiore said in a written statement. “Now this man will, rightfully, spend the rest of his life in prison. Excellent police work, analysis of the forensic evidence by the lab and the work of the Assistant District Attorneys assigned to this case brought this defendant to justice. He will now serve the maximum sentence which hopefully will provide a measure of comfort to the victim’s family.”

LSHV gets longtime Rocklander as new board member

A partner in a White Plains law firm who lived in Rockland County for nearly 40 years is the newest member of the Legal Services of the Hudson Valley’s board of directors.

Phillip C. Landrigan, (left) of McCarthy Fingar has worked as a pro bono attorney with LSHV, which represents low-income clients in civil cases such as mortgage foreclosures, evictions, domestic violence, healthcare, disability and public benefits.

In a statement, Landrigan said he has been impressed by the quality and specialized skills of LSHV staff and attorneys.

“As a trial lawyer for over 25 years, I have seen the injustices of a system in which outcomes are often the result of the parties’ ability to pay,” he said. “I look forward to working with the Board to increase the public’s awareness of the Legal Services of the Hudson Valley’s mission and to assure its dedicated staff has the resources to make the ideal of ‘justice for all’ a reality.”

Landrigan was born in Morristown, N.J., and lived in Rockland County before moving to Warwick, in Orange County, with his wife, Suzanne, and their five children. He has an undergraduate degree in economics from NYU’s College of Business and Public Administration, now the Stern School of Business, and a law degree from the University of Southern California. He joined McCarthy Fingar in 2006 and concentrates on business dispute resolution and litigation.

He is a past President of Big Brothers/Big Sister of Rockland and a current member of the President’s Council of St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill.