Scenes from the start of the Sheldene Campbell trial

More than three years after Sheldene Campbell (left) killed one woman and injured another in a hit-and-run rampage in White Plains, her murder and assault trial opened today in Westchester County Court.  County Judge Barbara Zambelli, who is a stickler for starting proceedings at 9:30 a.m. sharp, had to delay opening statements for nearly an hour because of a string of unforeseen circumstances.

First, defense lawyer Allan Laurence Brenner was a half-hour late because did not have an up-to-date attorney’s pass and had to wait in the long, long courthouse security line to enter. Zambelli admonished him but said she would ask court security to accept his expired pass. Then she apologized to Brenner for getting his first name wrong during in previous court proceedings, when she apparently referred to him by his middle name. She chided him and prosecutor Christine O’Connor for never correcting her. Brenner kidded that his name was unimportant to the case.

Then, the appointed jury foreman was dismissed after telling Zambelli that he questioned his own objectivity because two of his family members are retired law enforcement officers. A female juror took his place.

The panel for Campbell’s trial also has an unusual pair of jurors: a husband and wife team. The wife was called in separately and promised — as her husband did previously —that she would follow the judge’s orders to not talk about the case until deliberations began. Zambelli, who oversees a plethora of criminal trials every year, seeemed amazed that a married couple was picked for the same jury: “This is an all-time first for me,” she said.

By the time the jury entered, the courtroom was packed. Family and friends of the victims filled the front row on one side while prosecutors and spectators filled the rows behind them. The other side of the courtroom was packed with teenaged girls from Maria Regina High School in Hartsdale, who were observing the proceedings as an assignment.

Campbell, who has been in jail since Oct. 29. 2008, is facing 25 years to life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder, the top charge. Her trial will continue on Wednesday.

Free legal assistance offered in divorce cases

Couples who are in uncontested divorces can get free help with filing legal paperwork every Monday afternoon in Westchester County Court. Attorneys will be available on Courtroom 1803 from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Walk-ins are welcome but couples are urged to make an appointment by calling 824-5457. The service is provided by the 9th District Pro Bono Committee.

3 years after fatal hit-and-run, suspect going to trial

More than three years after Sheldene Campbell was arrested for causing a fatal hit-and-run rampage in White Plains, a jury for her murder trial will be selected on Monday.

Campbell, a 40-year-old mother of two who lived in Pomona before her arrest, is charged with intentionally striking and killing 65-year-old Marie Bucci on Oct. 19, 2008, moments after hitting 46-year-old Roseanne Schiavone in an Acura MDX.

She was indicted on felony counts of second-degree murder and attempted murder, first-degree attempted assault and leaving the scene; and misdemeanor counts of leaving the scene and third-degree assault.

Campbell has been held at Westchester County jail in Valhalla since Oct. 29, 2008, when her bail was raised to $200,000. After she was indicted on a murder charge, her bail was revoked.

The case against her hit a snag when Westchester County Judge Susan Cacace dropped the murder and assault charges  in July 2009, saying there wasn’t enough proof that she meant to kill and hurt her victims. An appeals court overturned her ruling and reinstated the charges in January 2010.

Another delay came as the defense raised questions about Campbell’s mental capacity. Two psychologists who examined Campbell testified at a competency hearing last year that she was fit to stand trial, despite having schizophrenia and hearing voices telling her she will win her criminal case.

Campbell, a former court reporter for the state Workers Compensation Board in New York City,  still has charges pending against her in New Jersey. Three weeks before the fatal collision in White Plains, she was arrested in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., accused of driving over a lawn, almost hitting a jogger, abandoning her 10-year-old son and assaulting a police officer. She was hospitalized for a week.


Desk of the DA: Put down the cell phone while driving!

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore’s monthly message for November (edited for length) centers on the dangers of texting while driving:

As Westchester County’s chief law enforcement officer, I am concerned with all aspects of public safety, including safe driving, and I would like to focus drivers, especially young drivers and their parents, on safety issues and changes in the law with respect to driving while using cell phones and other hand-held portable electronic devices.

It is illegal in New York State for a driver to use a hand-held portable electronic device while driving. The new law allows a police officer to stop a vehicle whose driver is using a hand-held portable electronic device and issue the driver a ticket.  The new law defines “using” broadly, to include “holding a portable electronic device while viewing, taking or transmitting images, playing games, or composing, sending, reading, viewing, accessing, browsing, transmitting, saving or retrieving email, text messages or other electronic data.”  The new law also increases the penalty, from two to three points on the driver’s license, and allows for a maximum fine of $150.

Police in Westchester County have issued summonses to approximately 165 drivers for texting while driving as of mid-September, as compared to approximately 100 summonses for texting while driving in all of 2010. In that same July through mid-September period of this year, there were approximately 1,459 summonses issued to drivers in Westchester County for talking on their cell phones while driving.

We know based on research conducted in this area that using a cell phone or other hand-held electronic device is a dangerous distraction to a driver.  A Clemson University study carried out using a simulator found that text messaging and using iPods caused drivers to leave their lanes 10 percent more often than drivers who were not distracted. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 20% of injury crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving.

Teen drivers are of particular safety concern to me because of their relative inexperience as drivers and their high rate of texting. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teens. Nielsen reports that the average teen is sending or receiving 3,339 text messages every month, an astounding number that averages out to six messages per hour when these teens are not asleep. Pew Center researchers found that one in three texting teens, ages 16 to 17, admit to texting behind the wheel – one in three ! Government statistics show that the under-20 age group has the greatest proportion of distracted drivers. Of drivers under age 20 involved in fatal crashes, 16% were reportedly to have been distracted while driving.

Drivers need to put down hand-held device, and parents need to model this behavior for their children, just as they insist on seat belts. Let’s get back to road safety basics: keep your eyes, your hands and your mind on the road.


Judges to talk about challenges to judicial independence

A federal judge and two state judges will take center stage at Pace University School of Law on Tuesday, Nov. 15 to share their personal struggles with challenges their judicial independence and other political challenges to judges around the world.

U.S District Judge Harold Baer, New York Appellate Justice Helen E. Freedman and 9th Judicial District Administrative Judge Alan Scheinkman will lead the 90-minute discussion starting at 5:30 p.m. at the New York State Judicial Institute on the law school campus, 84 North Broadway in White Plains. The event is free and open to the public, and a reception will be held a half-hour prior to the panel discussion.

The panel discussion will spotlight Baer’s new book, “Judges Under Fire: Human Rights, Independent Judges, and the Rule of Law.” The book includes his controversial 1995 decision to suppress evidence of 80 pounds of heroin and cocaine worth more than $5 million that was obtained by stopping a car, after finding that the police did not have reasonable suspicion sufficient for the arrest. His decision prompted 200 members of Congress to demand that President Bill Clinton ask Baer to resign. Baer later reversed his ruling after the government presented a fuller case and the defendant took the stand.

The federal courts in particular have come under attack this year by Republican presidential candidates. According to the New York Times, “Gov. Rick Perry of Texas favors term limits for Supreme Court justices. Representatives Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas say they would forbid the court from deciding cases concerning same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania want to abolish the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, calling it a ‘rogue’ court that is ‘consistently radical.’” The Supreme Court has been the target of liberal criticism as well, following its ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which lifted a national ban on corporate spending in political campaigns by finding that such spending was protected free speech.

I’m told that the judges will stay away from politics in their discussions on Tuesday.

Scarsdale attorney wins national honor for work with the deaf

A civil rights lawyer from Scarsdale is among a group of 10 women nationwide who will be honored next month by a national Jewish group.

Alexis Ander Kashar, (left) a legal and social advocate for the deaf, was named a “2011 Women to Watch honoree” by Jewish Women’s International. Kashar was the first deaf graduate of the University of Texas School of Law. Her work has led Jewish organizations, hotels, amusement parks, drive-through restaurants, and numerous other American businesses to provide access to the deaf and hearing impaired.

She is the President of the Board of Trustees for the New York School for the Deaf and the Public Policy Chair for the National Association for the Deaf. Her volunteer work with the Jewish Deaf Resource Center led the UJA-Federation of NY to establish a deaf interpreting fund for the Jewish community.

A mother of three, she also represents children with special needs. She will be formally recognized by JWI at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 5.

Photo courtesy of JWI

‘Occupy’ movement moving to the courts

The Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired activists to occupy the courts on Friday, January 20, the day before the 1-year anniversary of Citizens United, the controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision that forbids the government from censoring political ads funded by corporations and unions, ruling that such ads are protected by the First Amendment.

The group Move To Amend is planning a one-day occupation of the federal courts, including the Supreme Court and many of the 89 U.S. District Court buildings across the country. That mean protesters could be coming to the federal courthouse on Quarropas Street in White Plains, or not. Move To Amend claims the planned protest was inspired by Dr. Cornell West, who was arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court in October.

Check back with Completely Legal for update as organizers release more details in the weeks to come.