Desk of the DA: Victims’ Services in Westchester

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore’s monthly message for February is about services offered to crime victims and their families in the county:

Crime can have serious physical, psychological, financial and other effects on victims. As District Attorney and a former judge, I know how frightening and overwhelming it can be for victims who, through no fault of their own, come into contact with the criminal justice system. This is why I consider the Victim’s Justice Center (VJC) of the District Attorney’s Office an essential part of our mission to provide support to crime victims and their families.

In 2010, over 7,300 members of the community received assistance, information and guidance at the VJC, which is located in the District Attorney’s Office in the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains. VJC services are free of charge. The multi-lingual staff provides information about victims’ rights, safety planning, and resources available to them.

The VJC offers counseling and therapy at its offices, as well as referrals for support groups for families of homicide victims and victims of rape, childhood sexual assault, incest and elder abuse. The staff of the VJC provides referrals to shelters or safe houses if appropriate, as well as referrals to other agencies for services tailored to victims’ needs and the type of crime. VJC counselors accompany victims and their families to criminal court proceedings and provide interpreters to assist with translation if necessary. VJC staff assist victims in preparing victim impact statements to be read in court at the time of sentencing of a convicted offender.

The VJC provides help with applications for financial assistance from the New York State Office of Victim Services to compensate victims for lost income, funeral expenses for victims of homicide, medical and counseling expenses and loss of essential personal property. The VJC connects victims and their families to New York’s Victim Information and Notification Everyday (VINE) Program which provides prisoner status and release dates for convicted felony offenders in the state prison system.

At the District Attorney’s Office, we understand that victims of crimes, especially violent crimes, may lose their sense of personal safety and security. Taking the first steps by reporting the crime and seeking assistance can make a difference in moving forward. If you are a victim of a crime, contact your local police department to report it immediately. If you need help coping with the physical, psychological and financial impact of the crime, please contact the VJC for assistance.

Kung Fu grandmaster guilty of all charges in Westchester court

After a little more than two days of deliberations, a jury found Frank DeMaria guilty of nine charges that he directed four young girls to touch his genitals at his former martial arts studio in Croton on Hudson.

DeMaria,one of the highest-ranking martial arts experts in the country, has vehemently denied that he ever had any of his students to touch him inappropriately, including the hundreds of children he has taught in the past 50 years. He called the allegations “disgusting.” His family and supporters backed him up, as did two former students who said they never saw him sexually abuse anyone in his classes.

But his reputation was not enough to counter the testimony of the girls, who are now between 9 and 13 years old, nor the testimony of a male student who said he saw DeMaria abuse an 8-year-old girl in December 2010 and January 2011. Another male student backed up the January 2011 allegation.

DeMaria faces up to 7 years in prison when he’s sentenced on May 8, but he also could be sentenced to probation. In either case, he will likely have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

 

Kung Fu in the courtroom

It’s not every day that you get a Buddhist fighting monk to testify at a trial. But when the defendant is Kung Fu grandmaster Frank DeMaria, it makes perfect sense.

Shi Guo Lin brought some action — and a laugh — to the courtroom of Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli today when he took the stand as a defense witness. DeMaria, his friend and Kung Fu brother, is facing felony sex abuse charges for allegedly directing four young female students to grope him during class.

Guo Lin, who does not speak fluent English, did some Kung Fu moves for the jury to demonstrate a groin strike that DeMaria claims he was teaching the girls when two adult male students saw him and accused him of abuse. He showed some other kicks and punches in front of the jury box as defensive moves during an attack.

Assistant District Attorney Christine Cervasio asked Guo Lin about the “tiger claw,” a phrase to describe a groin attack he did not understand in English and that the Mandarin interpreter could not translate.

“Could you demonstrate so I could see what it looks like?” he asked the prim, polished prosecutor. The image of Cervasio, or any of the lawyers, doing Kung Fu caused the courtroom to erupt in laughter.  The judge, with a smile, said there would be no demonstrations and that DeMaria could tell his lawyer the Mandarin word for the tiger claw move so he could inform his witness.

DeMaria, left, and Guo Lin in happier times. Photo from kungfu.org, the American Center of Chinese Studies website.

NY Senate passes DNA testing expansion bill

The DNA Databank Expansion Bill cleared its first hurdle today when the state Senate approved legislation that would require all those convicted on Penal Law crimes, including misdemeanors, to submit their DNA to the state databank. Currently, convicted felons and those convicted of about three dozen specific misdemeanors must give a DNA sample to authorities, typically a cheek swab. The bill would cover convictions of all charges, expect for misdemeanor counts of driving while intoxicated and other traffic misdemeanors.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a written statement, called the bill “an important step in protecting New Yorkers and modernizing the state’s criminal justice system. This critical crime fighting resource embraces technology to help protect the innocent and convict the guilty.”

Cuomo urged the state Assembly to pass the bill so he could sign it into law immediately.

Landscaper awarded $11.2M for lost leg, injuries

Robert Loja (middle, in photo) was living the American Dream, his lawyers said. After emigrating from Ecuador at 17 and getting his U.S. citizenship, Loja and his wife, Maria, owned a home in Peekskill where they lived with their 5-year-old son. He had a steady job with a landscaping company for eight years and was making enough so his wife could go to school to be a nurse.

That all changed on Oct. 24, 2008, when a 23-year-old paralegal, blinded by sun glare on her way to work, slammed into Loja as he was unloading a landscaping trailer on Benedict Avenue in Tarrytown. The collision pinned him against the trailer, crushing his legs and nearly killing him. He has been unable to work since.

Loja’s luck took a turn for the better on Friday, when a Westchester County jury awarded him $11.2 million in his suit against Sleepy Hollow Landscaping and the woman who hit him.

His lawyers, Jonathan Rice and Steven Grant, (left and right, respectively, in photo) said the judgment breaks down like this: $3 million for future medical expenses, about $1.4 million for future lost income, $300,000 for past medical expenses and past lost wages, $2.5 million for past pain and suffering, $3 million for future pain and suffering, and $1 million for his wife for past and future pain and suffering.

But that amount instantly is reduced by $3.36 million because the jury found Loja 30% liable for not parking the landscaping trailer in a safer spot. And his lawyers said there is little chance he would collect anywhere close to the remaining $7.84 million from the landscaping company and driver.

His lawyers hope they can negotiate enough money from the defendants to save Loja’s house from foreclosure and to buy a new, better-fitting prosthesis for his left leg, which they said would allow him to get the surgery he needs on his right leg.

Court funding to be focus of state Bar meeting

Court funding cuts and the effect those cuts have had on New York’s justice system will be among the key topics for discussion at the New York State Bar Association’s 135th Annual Meeting in Manhattan, which starts on Monday.

The week-long conference will include forums on immigration, court funding, representation of veterans, diversity in the legal community and the impact of the Bernie Madoff fraud case on international litigation. More than 5,000 lawyers are expected.

Among those scheduled to address the conference are William Robinson III, president of the American Bar Association; Jack Rives, executive director of the American Bar Association; state Chief Judge Jonathan Lipmann; state Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti; former state Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and former Governor David Paterson. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will be presented with the Gold Medal, the Bar Association’s highest award, for lifelong excellence in the legal profession and his civic contributions.

On Wednesday, the conference will feature a panel on the crisis in state court funding across the United States. The Bar Association this week released a report that identified problems with the court system in the wake of state budget cuts, including long delays and postponements in civil and criminal cases, overcrowded court calendars, problems with jury selection and jury service, limited citizen access to legal services and overworked court employees, among other issues. Former state Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye (now of counsel with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom), will moderate a panel of state and national experts on the topic. American Bar Association President William T. Robinson’s keynote address also will focus on court funding.

For a complete listing of speakers, program and events, go to www.nysba.org/am2012. Founded in 1876, the 77,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest state bar association in the country.

Man convicted of raping woman, beating her son

A 30-year-old Mount Vernon man was convicted today of raping his live-in ex-girlfriend and beating her 6-year-old son at least twice last year.

Michael E. Thompson Jr. (right) was found guilty of first-degree rape and three counts of second-degree assault, all felonies, and misdemeanor counts of menacing and child endangerment.

A Westchester County jury acquitted him of two counts of third-degree rape an an additional count of first-degree rape.

Prosecutors say Thompson, who is 6-foot-3 and weighs more than 300 pounds, punched the boy in the mouth, knocking out a tooth. They also allege he beat the boy with an electrical cord, poured rubbing alcohol over the open wounds and dunked his head into scalding water.

Thompson was accused of terrorizing the boy’s mother, who worked in a restaurant, threatening to kill her if she didn’t let him live in her apartment. She said Thompson beat and raped her to keep her under his control.

The woman told no one until Feb. 20, when prosecutors said she finally got the courage to go to the police. The defense claimed the woman’s accusations were revenge for Thompson cheating on her.

Acting state Supreme Court Justice Robert Neary set sentencing for Feb. 29. The rape conviction carries a maximum sentence of 25 years in state prison, while each assault charges is punishable by up to seven years.

Trial opens Friday for Kung Fu master charged with sex abuse

UPDATE: CLICK HERE TO READ THE STORY ABOUT OPENING STATEMENTS

Frank DeMaria (left) taught a move called the “tiger claw” so his martial arts students could defend themselves against attackers. But Westchester County prosecutors say the move, when it involved grabbing DeMaria’s groin, was an excuse to have 8- and 10-year-old girls fondle the 67-year-old kung fu grandmaster at his Croton-on-Hudson studio.

Jury selection began today for DeMaria, an Ossining resident who founded the American Center for Chinese Studies. His felony sex abuse trial will open at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow before county Judge Barbara Zambelli.

He has pleaded not guilty to three counts of second-degree course of sexual conduct against a child and two counts of first-degree sexual abuse, both felonies, and four counts of child endangerment, a misdemeanor.

He is charged with abusing four girls, all under 13 years old. Prosecutors say he would have the girls face away from him, reach around and then repeatedly grab, squeeze and pull his penis. While the girls followed instructions, she said, DeMaria would gyrate his hips. Those actions, they argue, is not a legitimate martial arts move.

DeMaria told Croton detectives that his students were taught to grab the eyes, throat and groin of their attackers. He said he taught students to grab the groin when they were in an arm-lock or choke-hold position. When police told him that some of his students complained that he enjoyed being grabbed in the groin, DeMaria reportedly said, “I can’t control what my groin does. It’s a physical reaction, it’s not on purpose.”

Defense lawyer Andrew Quinn said his client, a retired Westchester County police officer, is the third-highest ranked grandmaster of his type of martial arts in the world. He said DeMaria teaches physical street-fighting moves so people can defend themselves, and has demonstrated “tiger claw” defense moves in videos and booklets. Quinn also said the parents and students who sign up for his martial arts courses sign waivers acknowledging that there will be physical contact in the classes.

DeMaria wrote a book on Chang-style tai chi and was head instructor for self-defense at the Westchester Police Academy. He has also taught courses at the State University of New York at Purchase.

NY State Bar President: court funding cuts are bad for business

The New York State Bar Association’s report about the failing conditions of state courts in the wake of budget cuts is meant to be a wake-up call for state lawmakers who may be considering slashing the Office of Court Administration’s budget even further, Bar President Vincent E. Doyle III (right) told Completely Legal.

“Courts are doing more work with less resources,” he said, noting not only the 12 percent increase in overall caseloads from 2001 but also that foreclosure filings have nearly doubled. “There were years of budget constraints and years of stagnation before the funding cut.”

Doyle said he wants state lawmakers to realize that businesses look at the efficiency of a state’s court system when deciding if it will move to New York or expand its existing operations. If the court system appear overwrought and chaotic, he argued, businesses will leave New York.

“The legal climate in this state is just as important as the economic climate,” he said. “(State lawmakers) need to look at courts as something more than a line item on a budget sheet.”

Flowing tears in Judge Zambelli’s court

It was the day of tear-filled emotional sentencings in the Westchester County courtroom of Judge Barbara Zambelli.

Ex-Eastchester police officer James Pileggi (right) blubbered as he was sentenced to serve 3 to 9 years in state prison for unintentionally killing his friend in New Rochelle two years ago. Pileggi’s tears followed the sobs of Gail Everett, the mother of victim Andre Everett, who called Pileggi “evil” and swore never to forgive him. The prosecution asked for the maximum semtence: 15 years in prison. The defense asked for the minimum: time served with probation. Zambelli, as I predicted, split it down the middle, allowing Pileggi to apply for parole in a little more than two years.

Three hours later,  Francisco Acevedo (left) was sentenced to life for the cold-case serial killings of three women in south Yonkers.  The daughter of one of the victims, who was three when her mother was killed, and the mother of the second victim sobbed as they railed against Acevedo, calling him a monster, an animal, and other insults.

Danielle Hodges of The Bronx, who is the sister of one of the victims, did not speak at the sentencing. After it was over, she said it brought closure. “My sister is finally free,” she said.

Acevedo’s sentencing was delayed because he had not been brought to the courthouse in time from Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County, where he is serving a 1 to 3-year stint on a felony drunken driving conviction out of Suffolk County.

There were two other high-profile cases today that were both brief and unemotional. Ex-Mayor Adam Bradley’s ongoing domestic violence case was adjourned to March 5 while the case of Tappan Zee Bridge dangler Michael Davitt was postponed to Feb. 24 in Greenburgh Town Court.