Applause, applause

As I sat in Judge Molea’s courtroom this morning, I heard something I had never heard in court before.

Clapping.

The happy noise was for a few young men who are in a drug-treatment program called DTAP-Road to Recovery. They were in court today so the judge could make sure they were all clean and sober and following the rules to remain in the program.

“You’ve been drug-free for five weeks,” Molea said, handing one of the young man a paper certificate. “Congratulations.” And the whole courtroom applauded.

Next case. “You’ve been drug free for 43 weeks. Congratulations.” Bigger applause.

I never saw that many people smiling in a courtroom at once. I was one of them, but not for the exact same reason. It’s not that I wasn’t happy to see these guys getting their lives back together, but to watch a black-robed state Supreme Court justice lead a round of applause for them just surprised me.

Outside in the hallway, I was stopped by defense lawyer Barry Warhit, who was apparently as bemused with the bravos as I was. He pondered how differently his job would be if all of his cases got the Road to Recovery treatment:

“Yes, your honor, my client was in prison, but he completed his parole!” *Applause*

Seriously, though, I hope all the guys in this program make it through.

Grading Garcia

With Mike Garcia announcing yesterday that he’s leaving his post as U.S. attorney effective Dec. 1, it might seem a good opportunity to give him his final evaluation for three years as the top federal prosecutor in the region. But that would be premature. As Pace law Professor Bennett Gershman told me yesterday, “There could be things percolating now that could come to fruition under his successor.”
That could well include the Wall Street meltdown investigation. In the northern suburbs, it could refer to the several public corruption probes launched as a result of Garcia’s focus on alleged wrongdoing by public officials, a signature of his tenure.
The investigation into the Yonkers City Council’s handling of the Ridge Hill development is continuing. The prosecutor handling the case, Perry Carbone, has left the office. But another veteran assistant U.S. attorney, Jason P.W. Halperin has picked up the case.
And while one Yonkers cop, Wayne Simoes, has been indicted in connection with the office’s probe into allegations of police brutality by the Yonkers police, that investigation isn’t over either.
Same thing in Mount Vernon, where former city Planning Commissioner Constance “Geri” Post and businessman Wayne Charles have been indicted on charges that she steered big-bucks contracts to him. That probe, too, is ongoing.
And the feds’ investigation of the Sleepy Hollow police department also continues. No indictments have been handed up in that probe.
So, the jury remains out on those cases and Garcia. Or, more accurately, the grand jury remains out, since even the cases I mentioned that haven’t yielded indictments yet have had some evidence put before grand juries sitting in the Brieant Courthouse in White Plains.

U.S. Attorney exits

Michael Garcia, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, has just resigned his position to enter private practice. The departure of Garcia, 47, from the highest profile federal prosecutor’s job in the country was not unexpected. A new presidential administration usually brings changes in the leadership of U.S. attorneys’ offices across the country – moreso when the new administration is from a different political party. His announcement comes just hours after Christopher Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, handed in his resignation. Garcia, who lives in Westchester with his wife and three kids, has been on the job for three years. His resignation is effective Dec. 1. Deputy U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin will run the office until a successor is appointed by Barack Obama after he is sworn in as president.
We’ll have more about Garcia’s exit and a look at possible successors in a story that’ll run tomorrow in the Journal News and on Lohud.com

A grandmother’s love

What would you do if your son or grandson was convicted of sexually abusing a little girl? Would you — or could you — choose to keep loving him?

Sandra Jones of Yonkers was faced with that question.

Jones is a church-going woman and the self-described rock of her family. She is a “Gold Star Mother” — a title bestowed on women whose children lost their lives serving their country. Her son was killed in 1983 while stationed with the U.S. Marines in Beirut, Lebanon.

Today, she watched her 27-year-old grandson go to prison for having sex with a 10-year-old girl. Authorities say he raped the girl in his grandmother’s apartment. The man, Jamall Cherry, pleaded guilty to felony sex abuse and agreed to spend 5 1/2 years behind bars. The plea bargain spared the traumatized girl, now, 11, from testifying at trial.

I sat a few feet away from Ms. Jones in the courtroom and watched her blow a kiss to her handcuffed grandson as he stood next to his court-appointed attorney. He was expressionless as the prosecutor read a heartbreaking statement from the little girl’s mother detailing how many problems the young victim has had since the Feb. 5 incident. The words may have been too much to hear — Ms. Jones left the courtroom.

Afterwards, Ms. Jones stopped me in the courthouse hallway. She told me how she was mentoring the “young lady” and how upset she was that her grandson hurt the girl. She is praying the girl will get the professional help she needs to live a normal life. She also realizes the next few years of her grandson’s life likely will be the worst he has ever experienced, and said she will support him.

“We’re going to look for him to get help,” she said. “We’re going to stick with him and keep him looking toward the right track.”

She chose love.

Ain’t it grand?

It was that time again today at the federal courthouse in White Plains.
Stunned citizens clutching paperbacks or magazines, wandering around in a daze, muttering “18 months, 18 months.” Others lined up to use the pay phone (no cells allowed in the fed courthouse) to call loved ones or employers and tell them the dread news, “It’s 18 months. Yes, 18 months.”
Ahh, that all can mean only one thing.
We’re picking a new grand jury today!
No doubt the least known – and probably most important – detail about serving on a federal grand jury is that it’s not just for a few weeks as it is in the state system.
Nope.
Make the final cut for the panel of 16 to 23 on a federal grand jury and you’re looking at 18 months of trekking to White Plains one or two days a week.
But it could be worse. There’s always the possibility the grand jury’s term could be extended by six months. Making it two full years.
Or you could get seated on a special grand jury (impaneled for organized crime investigations.)
Those jurors are subject to a possible additional 18 months on top of the year and a half term. That’s three years.
You can familiarize yourself with federal grand jury service here.

Homeless sex offenders

This is a problem.

I was talking to Michelle Lopez, a Westchester County prosecutor who works in the DA’s sex crimes division, and learned some disturbing facts.

For one, it’s virtually impossible to track Level 1 and 2 sex offenders who are homeless. If they’re not on parole, probation or some sort of post-release supervision, she said, “you’ve got nothing.”

Level 3 sex offenders — the ones most likely to commit another sexual crime — have to report their whereabouts to law enforcement every 90 days, even if “home” is a park bench, and they have to tell police if or when they are leaving the state to visit friends or family. But they don’t always do that, and recently, one Level 3 sex offender decided to fight this requirement in court.

His name is Marvin Smith. He’s a 55-year-old Westchester guy, and in 1981 he was convicted for raping and sodomizing a woman with another man, Lopez said. He was paroled in 1998 and was living in a homeless shelter at 85 Court Street in White Plains, but he broke his curfew — a parole violation — and went back to prison. He got out again in 2005, but Lopez said he had “maxed out” the total years on his original prison sentence and could not be monitored by parole. In other words, he was free man.

The only way to keep tabs on Smith was through the sex offender registry and the 90-day reporting policy. Smith claimed his homelessness prevented him from meeting the law’s requirements, and the case went to trial before Westchester County Judge Jeffrey Cohen. The jury found Smith guilty of violating the sex offender registry, an “E” felony that carries a prison sentence of 18 months to four years in state prison.

“They try to find a loophole,” Lopez said. “But the statute is clear.”

Smith will be sentenced Jan. 6.

The judge and the psychic

No gathering in honor of the late Judge Charles Brieant is complete without someone re-counting the judge’s famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) interaction with a psychic during the high-profile Bedford School District trial in 1999 where a group of Catholic families accused the district of promoting New Age religions and the occult to elementary school students.
The federal courthouse in White Plains was re-named yesterday in honor of Brieant. (Read the story here. ) At the ceremony, Rep. Nita Lowey took up the telling of the story.
The lawyer for the families called a purported psychic to testify about what she discussed with students during a 1996 visit to Pound Ridge Elementary. The psychic testified, was cross-examined and then stepped down. But before she exited the stand, Brieant had a question.
“If you’re truly clairvoyant, can you tell me when we’re going to finish this case?”
The psychic did not reply.

Getting an early start

The election is a year away, but the guy running against Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore is sending out promotional press material already. This is what I found in my e-mailbox:

CANDIDATE FOR WESTCHESTER COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY
CALLS FOR CREATION OF FAMILY JUSTICE CENTER IN WESTCHESTER

November 11, 2008 – (White Plains, NY) Dan Schorr, an experienced domestic violence prosecutor and candidate for Westchester County District Attorney, called today for the creation of a Family Justice Center in Westchester County in order to better serve and protect victims of domestic violence.

“The Westchester DA’s Office must do much more to minimize obstacles faced by domestic violence victims seeking help,” Schorr said. “New York City and other jurisdictions have established Family Justice Centers that give domestic violence victims easy access to comprehensive services by placing dedicated domestic violence prosecutors, government agency, and community services staff under one roof. The Westchester DA’s office has failed to give our citizens the same support and access to resources that domestic violence victims in other venues now receive.”

Family Justice Centers utilize both public and private support to help domestic violence victims break the cycle of violence by providing essential safety planning, case management, and civil legal assistance in the same visit – all in their native language while their children play safely in a specially designed children’s room. This model of working with multiple government agencies, civil lawyers, criminal prosecutors, and community partners has become the cornerstone of coordinated service delivery for domestic violence victims in New York City and elsewhere, but has not been realized in Westchester.

“As a prosecutor in Westchester’s Integrated Domestic Violence Court, I saw first-hand that many resources needed by domestic violence victims were difficult to seek out and not easily accessible,” Schorr said. “I visited the Family Justice Center in Queens County and spoke extensively with many of the professionals and former colleagues there. I am incredibly impressed by the variety and strength of resources available in one location to assist victims with the many problems associated with domestic violence. As District Attorney, I will create a Family Justice Center in Westchester so that our residents can also gain from these innovations.”

Schorr has successfully prosecuted some of the most dangerous criminal defendants in Westchester and Queens Counties as an Assistant District Attorney specializing in the prosecution of domestic violence, sex crimes, child abuse, and homicides. He has secured numerous convictions in Westchester’s Integrated Domestic Violence Court and has extensive successful jury trial experience.

Schorr is also an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Law and Legal Writing at Pace University Law School. In addition, he has taught in Beijing, China, instructing Chinese judges and lawyers about principles of U.S. criminal justice and trial advocacy as an Adjunct Professor at Tsinghua University. Schorr earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School and his M.A. and B.A. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.

49,000,000,000,000,000 to 1

Those are the odds that someone other than Mario Girau of Yonkers stabbed and bludgeoned his wife to death last year, according to a DNA test.

I learned this after talking with Girau’s defense lawyer, David Rich, a few minutes after the 71-year-old retiree pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. That number, by the way, is pronounced 49 quadrillion, not quintillion as I previously said. No wonder Girau took a plea deal. He’ll serve 15 years to life, but at his age, with his deteriorating health, 15 years will be a life sentence.

In the courtroom, the white-haired Girau sat at the defense table because he was too weak to stand. But he was extremely polite as he admitted to being a murderer, as evidenced by his responses to Westchester County Judge Robert DiBella and Assistant District Attorney Lana Hochheiser:

“Is this what you want to do today?” the judge asked.
“Yes, sir!” Girau answered.
“Are you pleading guilty because you are, in fact, guilty?” the prosecutor asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Girau said.

Sitting two rows in front of me was Mario Girau Jr., one of the killer’s eleven — 11! — children. He was allowed to go back in the holding cell area and talk with his father before the plea. As the elder Girau was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, he turned to his son and said, “Take care. I’ll talk to you later.”

When I approached the younger Girau in the hallway, I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t feel much like talking. We’ll see if anyone speaks at the elder Girau’s Jan. 16 sentencing.

Welcome to Completely Legal

We hope that this blog gives you an insiders look behind the courthouse doors of the Lower Hudson Valley.

When people ask me what it’s like covering murder trials and other legal matters for a living, my answer is always the same — real courtrooms do not work like the ones on television. No where is this more evident than on “Law & Order” which I think is now the longest-running courtroom drama on TV. When I watched the premiere last week, I laughed thinking how much easier my job would be if trials were this quick and as easy. I envy L&O’s fictional newspaper reporters.

But L&O has influenced the collective cultural opinion of the court system so much, judges here have to remind people coming for jury duty that L&O and other TV trials won’t be like the trial they’re about to sit through.

To illustrate that point, here are some differences between “Law & Order” and your typical high-profile homicide trial in the Lower Hudson Valley:

Time from arrest to trial
L&O: 30 minutes
LHV: 1-2 years

Length of trial
L&O: 13-15 minutes
LHV: 3-5 weeks

Opening statements
L&O: Occasionally, for a few seconds
LHV: Always, for many, many minutes

Number of prosecution witnesses
L&O: 3-4
LHV: 30-40

Cross-examination
L&O: 30 seconds
LHV: 30 minutes to 2 days

Leading witnesses
L&O: Frequently, without protest from opposing counsel
LHV: Rarely, and always with strong objections

Closing arguments
L&O: 1 minute
LHV: 1-2 hours

Verdicts
L&O: Musical accompaniment
LHV: Silence, except for crying relatives

And finally, despite our logo, judges around here don’t use gavels. I’ve yet to see a single one sitting on a judicial bench in the Westchester County Courthouse. Tim says that out of the nearly 60 district and magistrate judges in the Southern District of New York, only one — Judge Deborah Batts in Manhattan — actually bangs a gavel.

With all that said, I still plan to watch Law & Order every week. It’s great entertainment, and it doesn’t remind me of work at all.