NY Bar Association president marks Law Day with plea for better court funding

This just in from the New York State Bar Association:

In the historic chambers of the state’s highest court, State Bar Association President Vincent E. Doyle III today stressed the vital importance of a fully funded and operational court system.

“In matters large and small, the Judiciary is the foundation of our freedom,” he said. “The courts defend our fundamental rights, protect public safety and facilitate the peaceful resolution of disputes,” he said. “When the courts suffer, the pain is felt throughout society.”

Doyle delivered his remarks at Law Day ceremonies at the state Court of Appeals where Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman opened the session attended by members of the Court of Appeals, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and other elected officials.

Doyle’s speech reflected a central theme of Law Day being echoed in the legal community across the nation: “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom.”

Doyle cited a Bar Association report in January that revealed the impact of 2011 budget cuts on the state court. Among the report’s findings: reduced courthouse hours were limiting citizen access to courts and resulting in delays in resolving cases; the jury selection process potentially was being compromised by the prospect of lengthier trials; delays were resulting in criminal suspects spending more time in jail before trial; staff reductions were affecting the ability of the courts to efficiently and effectively dispense with cases; and less assistance was available to litigants who represent themselves in family court and other civil cases.

The report is available at www.nysba.org/CourtFundingReport.

Doyle said the State Bar Association understands that “government resources are not unlimited,” but when setting spending priorities, elected officials must recognize the fundamental role of the Judiciary in establishing the rule of law.

The 77,000-member New York State Bar Association, founded in 1876,  is the largest voluntary state bar association in the country.

New lawyers will have to do 50 hours of pro bono work to pass the New York bar

This is one way for the state to help financially-strapped people get the free legal advice they need: a mandate for recent law school grads to volunteer more than four dozen hours to help those who need their counsel the most.

“With this initiative, New York will lead the way in stating loudly and clearly that service to others is an indispensable part of our legal training,” Lippman said today at an annual Law Day event at the state Court of Appeals in Albany.

 

Court news: Aviles sentencing Tuesday; grand jury in cop shooting

Aviles facing 15 years in his baby’s death

Michael Aviles, 43, of Haverstraw faces a maximum of 15 years in prison Tuesday for causing the death of his 5-month-old daughter, whose skull and ribs were fractured during a torturous beating inside her home while under the care of her parents.

Aviles was convicted by County Court Judge William K. Nelson in January of second-degree manslaughter, a felony count finding that he involuntarily caused the death of Michelle Aviles in January 2010. Nelson also acquitted Aviles and the baby’s mother, Lissette Capellan, of second-degree murder.

Attorney Hollis Griffin, argued during the non-jury trial that Aviles was too drunk to remember what happened, but made some statements implying he dropped the baby or harmed her.

Capellan claimed through her lawyer, David Goldstein, that Aviles killed the baby and she slept through whatever he did, though they claim to have found the baby unresponsive more than 2 hours before arriving at Nyack Hospital.

Aviles faces 3 1/2 to 15 years, with prosecutor Stephen Moore expected to ask  Nelson for the maximum sentence.

Photo at right: Michael Aviles being arrested in January 2010

Gilles shooting case

A Rockland grand jury began hearing evidence today in the shooting death of Spring Valley resident Herve Gilles by a village police officer during an early morning fight in a parking lot outside a bar December.

Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe has said a grand jury will hear the evidence from three separate investigations into Gilles’s death.

An initial police investigation found the shooting justified because Roper acted in self-defense as Gilles went after officer John Roper, took the officer’s nightstick and had bitten the officer.

Gilles, 48, who came to Spring Valley from Haiti in 1984, had a history of mental health issues and being combative and loud with the police and others when he was off his medication or drunk. Police responded to a security guard from El Buen Gusto at 11 Furman Ave. reporting an emotionally disturbed man was creating a disturbance.

Gilles’s supporters don’t believe the officer needed to shoot Gilles, calling for the officer to be fired. A family lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, said Gilles’ relatives would await the outcome of the grand jury but doesn’t believe the shooting of Gilles in the head was justifiable.

The law allows police officers to defend themselves and use all necessary force to make an arrest.

Lau pleads guilty to murdering Jami Erlich

Valley Cottage resident Eric Lau pleaded guilty this morning to murdering his neighbor Jami Erlich, a Ramapo elementary school gym teacher in November 2009.

Lau, 34, admitted he hid inside her Valley Cottage condominium, hit her across the head with a blunt object and slit her throat. Lau asked to make a statement about killing the 32-year-old Ramapo gym teacher rather than answer questions from the prosecutor. They both lived in Lake Road Condominiums.

Lau faces 22 years to life in prison for second-degree murder when sentenced June 22 by state Supreme Court Justice William A. Kelly at the Rockland County Courthouse in New City.

Read more at Lau pleads.

Photo on left is Jami Erlich and, on the right, Eric Lau

 

Briarcliff Manor deputy mayor named “most socially conscious lawyer”

David Venditti, a partner at Gaines, Gruner, Ponzini & Novick, LLP has been named the “Most Socially Conscious Lawyer” for the 2012 “Above the Bar Awards.” He will be recognized at a ceremony at Pace Law School in White Plains on April 26.

A practicing lawyer for 27 years, Venditti (left) has dedicated himself to community volunteer service and providing pro bono legal services at his current firm and his previous firm, Skadden Arps. He was part of an effort that stopped the “Millennium Pipeline,”  a highly-controversial natural gas pipeline that was to run through Westchester.

Venditti is a past president of the Briarcliff Manor Chapter of Rotary International and a past member of the Briarcliff Community Coalition. As a village trustee in Briarcliff, Venditti proposed and drafted affordable housing legislation and supported efforts to build a new library and a downtown park.

The “Above the Bar Awards” honor the best and brightest Westchester-based attorneys in several categories. The awards are co-sponsored by Pace Law School, the accounting firm Citrin Cooperman, the Westchester County Business Journal, the Westchester County Bar Association, the Westchester Women’s Bar Association, and The Westchester Bank. County Executive Rob Astorino will be the keynote speaker at the April 26 ceremony.

Schneiderman to create bureau to review wrongful convictions

This just in from New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman:

A.G. SCHNEIDERMAN ANNOUNCES LANDMARK INITIATIVE TO ADDRESS WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS IN NEW YORK

Conviction Review Bureau Will Promote Partnerships With District Attorneys To Address Claims Of Innocence

A.G. Will Also Conduct Top-To-Bottom Review Of His Office’s Investigatory & Prosecutorial Procedures For Reliability, And Make Improvements As Needed

Sweeping Initiative Also Includes Committee To Efficiently Resolve Claims Against The State For Unjust Conviction

NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced the establishment of a Conviction Review Bureau in the New York Office of Attorney General (OAG), a first-of-its-kind statewide initiative to address issues related to wrongful convictions across New York State. Partnering with law enforcement across the state, Schneiderman said the bureau will work to ensure that New York’s justice system maximizes its ability to convict the real perpetrators of crimes, while preventing innocent people from being penalized for crimes they did not commit.

“There is only one person who wins when the wrong person is convicted of a crime: the real perpetrator, who remains free to commit more crimes. For victims, their families, and any of us who could suffer the nightmare of being wrongly accused, it is imperative that we do everything possible to maximize accuracy, justice, and reliability in our justice system,” Schneiderman said. “As a result, my office will be working with District Attorneys across the state to address compelling claims of innocence, and I will conduct a top-to-bottom review of my office’s investigatory and prosecutorial procedures, and adapt them as needed to ensure reliability.”

Schneiderman emphasized that there are numerous examples of District Attorneys successfully reviewing and re-investigating cases, perhaps most famously the Central Park jogger case in New York County. However, there may be instances in which it is helpful for an independent and specialized entity to enter the process. To address this criminal justice imperative, the Conviction Review Bureau will:

1)  Review Potential Wrongful Conviction Cases. The Conviction Review Bureau will work with D.A.’s offices to identify cases where the involvement of the Conviction Review Bureau may be of use. The OAG will be available for referrals from District Attorneys as resources allow, and on referral will investigate in anticipation of potential litigation. These might include cases where a D.A.’s office lacks the additional staff required to conduct a review, or a conflict might exist. It is anticipated that these cases will be serious felonies and ones in which the claimant’s other options are exhausted (eg, an Article 440 motion has not succeeded). In addition, the OAG will continue to address claims of actual innocence in its own cases.

2) Conduct Top-to-Bottom Review of OAG’s Investigatory and Prosecutorial Procedures. The Bureau will conduct an internal review of the OAG’s investigative procedures (e.g., identification procedures, the recording of confessions). After intensive study, the Bureau will adopt best practices for the office’s investigative division with the goal of maximizing reliability. In addition to addressing the efficacy of investigations, the Bureau will also devise guidelines for best prosecutorial practices to be applied by OAG attorneys, to help ensure the fair administration of justice .

3) Efficiently Resolve Unjust Conviction Torts. A subcommittee of the Bureau will meet to resolve unjust conviction torts filed against the state. This will enable those found by the courts to have been unjustly convicted, and meeting the requirements for compensation under state law, to receive it in an efficient, streamlined manner.

In making his announcement, Attorney General Schneiderman expressed gratitude to the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY) led by Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore, as well as to the New York State Justice Task Force, commissioned by Chief Judge of the State of New York Jonathan Lippman, both of which have been exploring improvements to law enforcement procedures to make them as fair and reliable as possible.

The new bureau will be led by Chief Thomas Schellhammer, an Assistant Attorney General and former homicide prosecutor in the New York County District Attorney Office, and Director Blake Zeff, who serves as senior advisor to the Attorney General.
“I look forward to continuing to partner with leaders in law enforcement in New York State, so that together we will lead the way for the nation, when it comes to criminal justice reforms,” Attorney General Schneiderman said.

Schneiderman’s announcement today was hailed by bipartisan leaders in the criminal justice and law enforcement communities

Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York, said, “Attorney General Schneiderman is to be commended for his landmark effort to curb the nightmare of wrongful convictions. One wrongfully convicted person is one too many, and I believe the reforms announced today will help pave the way toward reducing such injustices.”

Janet DiFiore, Westchester County District Attorney and President of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, said, “The integrity of the criminal justice system in New York State hinges on ensuring that the guilty are held accountable and the innocent are protected. The District Attorneys Association continues in its efforts in this regard and appreciates Attorney General Schneiderman’s leadership in seeking to partner with us in this effort, by allocating resources and the expertise of his office.”

Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, said, “We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for taking on the problem of wrongful convictions in New York. As we’ve learned through DNA exonerations, wrongful convictions give you an opportunity to see where the system failed and how it can be made more just. We hope that district attorneys throughout the state will take advantage of this initiative, because all New Yorkers are hurt when the wrong person is convicted of a crime and the real perpetrator is free to commit more crimes.”

Kathleen B. Hogan, Warren County District Attorney, said, “District Attorneys have always appreciated the seriousness of post-conviction review. Many offices have limited resources, with 40 D.A. offices in the state having ten or fewer attorneys to handle their entire caseload. That’s why I applaud Attorney General Schneiderman and welcome his assistance in providing experienced attorneys who will work collaboratively with D.A. offices to review cases in the post-conviction context.”

Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, President of the New York State NAACP, said, “The NAACP New York State Conference believes this is a step in the right direction because we need more effective measures to prevent ‘wrongful convictions.’ The NAACP NYS Conference commends the AG’s office for the creation of the CRB and we look forward to following its progress and results.”

Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., Manhattan District Attorney, said, “I applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for his innovative initiative to curb wrongful convictions. My office has instituted a program to ensure the integrity of our convictions, and I am delighted to partner with the Attorney General in achieving justice for New Yorkers and preserving the public’s confidence in law enforcement.”

 

Vincent E. Doyle III, President of the New York State Bar Association, said, “Attorney General Schneiderman has long demonstrated a commitment to addressing the serious issue of wrongful convictions. The Association was proud to work with then-state Senator Schneiderman on legislation addressing the root causes of wrongful convictions, which we hope will be enacted in the near future. We commend the Attorney General for making the resources of his office available to help address this ongoing problem.”

William J. Fitzpatrick, Onondaga County District Attorney, said, “As prosecutors, we should always be vigilant of preventing wrongful convictions. That starts with establishing and implementing practices and procedures to ensure the right person is arrested and tried. It also requires careful examination of legitimate claims of innocence that warrant review after conviction. In recent years, the District Attorney’s Association of the State of New York has established standing committees to address these issues, such as the Committee on the Fair and Ethical Administration of Justice, the Best Practices Committee and the Ethics Committee. To have Attorney General Schneiderman, offer assistance to district attorneys’ offices and partner with state prosecutors to ensure that the guilty are convicted and that the innocent are exonerated is a testament to his leadership, vision and cooperation. As one of the 62 elected district attorneys in the state, I along with my fellow prosecutors, applaud his efforts.”

Glenn Garber, Founder and Director of the Exoneration Initiative, said, “The Attorney General’s Conviction Review Bureau is a significant step toward justice for the wrongfully convicted in New York, especially for those who lack DNA to prove their innocence. By reexamining investigative and prosecutorial practices in certain cases, the Attorney General is providing an important and needed opportunity within the system in New York to exonerate the innocent.”

Lonnie Soury, President of Falseconfessions.org, said, “Eric Schneiderman kept his word by fulfilling his commitment to address this urgent criminal justice imperative. He fought to pass legislation to limit wrongful convictions while a State Senator and now, in his role of Attorney General, he is instituting a program that will hopefully be a model for developing best practices on those factors that lead to wrongful convictions such as false confessions and witness misidentification. This program will help prevent innocent people from going to prison, contribute to apprehending the guilty, and give hope to those currently wrongfully imprisoned”

DA Janet DiFiore sends out statement in support of state’s expanded use of DNA

DiFiore says, among other things, that broader use of the state’s DNA database has been an important tool in both identifying perpetrators of crimes and exonerating innocent people. But the practice has raised concerns among some privacy advocates.

 

DNA is one of the most reliable forms of evidence in criminal investigations today. This year,New Yorkwill become the first state in the nation to expand its DNA databank to include samples from every defendant who is convicted of any felony or any Penal Law misdemeanor. As District Attorney and chief law enforcement officer in Westchester County, I want to share with you how this significant advance in criminal investigations will work to accomplish two equally important goals, convicting the guilty and exonerating the innocent.

Under present law, we collect DNA samples from convicted defendants in only 48% of crimes. Effective August 1, 2012, the state will expand its DNA databank to include defendants convicted of all felony as well as all Penal Law misdemeanors. ADNAsample is easily collected by swabbing the inside of an individual’s cheek and is processed at a cost of $30. Maintained under strict confidentiality laws, the DNA profile yields limited information relating only to identity and is given a numeric coding when uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS. The additional pool of evidence collected under our new law will be a reliable, cost effective way to solve crimes, prevent future crimes and exonerate the innocent.

 

In 2006, state law expanded DNA eligible crimes to include non-violent and low level crimes, and as a result, crime scene evidence collected in over 2,900 cases was matched toDNAsamples. The crimes solved were often much more serious and violent than the offense for which the DNA was collected. For example, the addition of petit larceny as a DNA qualifying offense has yielded 928 matches, including 48 homicides, 220 sexual assaults, 391 burglaries, and 110 robberies. These results confirmed the importance of collecting DNA, proving that many violent criminals commit a wide range of crimes including petty offenses and that public safety will be served best by collectingDNAsamples in an equally wide range of criminal convictions.

One of the most compelling illustrations of the value of expanding theDNAdatabank is my office’s recent prosecution and conviction of Francisco Acevedo, a serial killer who murdered three young women in Yonkers between 1989 and 1996. For two decades, these homicides remained unsolved and the killer was unaccounted for, despite the development of the sameDNAprofile obtained from the three crime scenes. Acevedo was convicted in 2009 in Suffolk County for the felony crime of Driving While Intoxicated and was sent to state prison. Under the law as it then existed, Acevedo was not required to provide a DNA sample. When he sought early parole, he was required to give a DNA sample which was uploaded to CODIS. It matched the profile developed from the forensic evidence recovered at each murder scene. Acevedo was indicted for these three previously unsolved murders, convicted and sentenced to 75 years to life in state prison. Under the new law, all defendants convicted of any felony must provide the DNA sample.

As important and powerful a tool as DNA is for convicting the guilty, it is equally important in exonerating the innocent. Countless innocent suspects have been ruled out in the early stages of criminal investigations. DNA has also been used to exonerate the innocent who were wrongfully convicted and, in two cases, identify the person who actually committed the crimes. The new law also provides access for defendants to obtain DNA testing under certain circumstances, both before trial and following a guilty plea or guilty verdict at trial. These provisions are intended to expand access to evidence to demonstrate a defendant’s innocence and to address the issue of wrongful convictions.

New York’s new law providing for the collection of DNA from a far broader range of convicted criminals will put us in a better position to solve crime, prevent victimization, and exonerate the innocent.

Ex-securities broker back in court on theft charges

A former securities broker from Cortlandt accused of stealing $130,000 from her clients and spending the money on herself is due in town court today on felony larceny charges.

Tamalyn Crutchfield Stewart (left) has been held on $100,000 bail following her arraignment last week on charges of second- and third-degree grand larceny.

According to the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office, Stewart is accused of stealing $100,000 from one client and $30,000 from another over a seven-month span in 2010.

Prosecutors say she was supposed to invest the money but used it for personal expenses instead.

The District Attorney’s Office launched an investigation in June after the victims filed complaints.

Stewart, 57, faces up to 15 years in state prison if convicted of the top larceny count.

Westchester judge denies special prosecutor in child rape, murder case

Westchester County Judge Barry Warhit (left) was called up to Putnam County this week to make a ruling on a 15-year-old case in Carmel involving the rape and murder of a 12-year-old Carmel girl.

Warhit, a relatively new judge who has been praised by both prosecutors and defense lawyers in Westchester for his fair judgements and balanced rulings, denied the defense’s request to appoint a special prosecutor, give immunity to a Sing Sing inmate who may testify and have the court interview every potential witness to check for possible coersion in the upcoming retrial of accused killer Anthony DiPippo.

DiPippo and another man, Andrew Krivak, were convicted of killing Josette Wright, a seventh-grader who disappeared in October 1994. Her body was found in the Patterson woods the following year. DiPippo was granted a new trial last year after a state appeals court found that his lawyer had a conflict of interest in the case.

SCOTUS weighs legality of U.S. healthcare law

The Supreme Court this morning is hearing arguments this morning on President Obama’s landmark health care law. Richard Wolf of USA Today summed up the importance of this case: “Not since the court confirmed George W. Bush’s election in December 2000 — before 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, Wall Street’s dive and Obama’s rise — has one case carried such sweeping implications for nearly every American.”

The first question is, considering that fines for not buying health insurance don’t kick in until 2015, should the justices wait until then to hear the case?

What do you think? Should the justices wait? Should they be hearing the case at all? Should they overturn the mandatory purchase provision? Should they leave the law as is? Feel free to post your comments here.

 

(Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)