Judge Wetzel retiring

State Supreme Court Justice William Wetzel is leaving the black robes behind for retirement. Wetzel, a one-time Briarcliff Manor Village Justice, spent years in Manhattan before being transferred to the Westchester County Courthouse last year.

While in Manhattan, Wetzel presided over the cybersex trial of Oliver Jovanovic in 1998 and was sharply criticized by the state appeals court for using the rape shield law to bar the jury from seeing lurid mails between the alleged victim and defendant. The appeals court overturned Jovanovic’s conviction. Most recently, Wetzel presided over the rape-murder trial of Walter Maddox of Yonkers, who was convicted of raping three women and killing one of them. He also presided over the murder trial of Vetal Bonhomme, who is serving a 20-year sentence for a shooting death in Mount Vernon and sentenced New Rochelle hand-chopper Christopher Calise to 15 years in prison.

For those interested, Wetzel’s retirement party will be held at Vintage in downtown White Plains from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 2. Cost is $40 for food and an open bar. Call 824-5437 by May 21 to RSVP.

Are these prison sentences fair?

Eight years for gun possession. 20 to life for a home break-in.

These are decisions handed down by two judges today in separate cases against two unlucky defendants from Yonkers.

dante thatcherThe gun case first. In January, a jury convicted a 20-year-old Dante Thatcher of second-degree and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon. Authorities say he was acting suspiciously one night on Riverdale Avenue back in 2008, and when the cops approached him, he threw a loaded gun to the ground and ran off.  Police caught him two weeks later.

Thatcher has no felony convictions as an adult. And yet acting state Supreme Court Justice William A. Wetzel is sending him upstate for eight years. I’ve seen drunk drivers who have killed people in Westchester not get this kind of prison time. Granted, under the law, second-degree gun possession requires a 3 1/2 year sentence no matter what, and as a “C” felony, carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. So it’s not as bad as it could have been. But still.

The other case involves a man who robbed a little old lady in her home on McLean Avenue in Yonkers last year. He went to trial and was convicted of third-degree robbery, burglary and having stolen property. showimg.aspThe defendant, Robert E. Whittle, has been in and out of prison for the past 30 years on convictions for robbery, burglary and stolen property and drug possession.

Westchester prosecutors wanted him sentenced as a persistent violent felon, and today county Judge Barbara Zambelli granted their wish. Whittle, 48, will now be in prison for at least another 20 years and could die there. I’ve seen killers get 10 to 15 years on plea bargains. He’s a crook and he’s getting 20.

And people wonder why so many cases are pleaded out.

Scenes from the Maddox conviction

tjndc5-5nj0xqg5ocl1jmld03jz_thumbnailWalter Maddox has been convicted of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and a slew of other sex crimes for three rapes in south Yonkers in 2008, one of them ending fatally.

Click here to read the story about the verdict. Now here’s the extra scoop:

The verdict came down at 2:15 p.m. One side of the courtroom was nearly filled with members of the Westchester District Attorney’s office, which is typical when verdicts are read in homicide trials. No one was there for Maddox, except the dozen or so court officers surrounding Maddox and guarding the door in case he tried to make a run for it.

Acting state Supreme Court Justice William A. Wetzel told everyone in the courtroom to remain seated and not react while the verdicts were read on all 13 counts. Everyone, including Maddox, complied.

After the courtroom emptied out, I waited around to interview jurors. And I waited. And waited. They must have been escorted out through the back passageways, because I didn’t even see them leave the third floor. I was hoping one of them would go to LoHud.com and comment on the online story (which some jurors have done in past cases) but no such luck.

I’d still like to talk to some jurors, so if you’re one of the 12 people who found Maddox guilty, please leave a comment here. Thanks!

Judge rejects suppression request for Selwyn Days

tjndc5-5b3dn4w4bjklloe86jt_thumbnail A jury will get to hear Selwyn Days’ incriminating statements when he is re-tried for a third time in the brutal 1996 slayings of an Eastchester millionaire and the man’s home health aide, a judge ruled last week.

Acting State Supreme Court Justice William A. Wetzel denied motions by Days’ defense lawyers to suppress statements that Days made to police on Feb. 15-16, 2001. The judge said Days had a “full and fair opportunity” to litigate all the issues at a suppression hearing in 2002 and that the defense’s argument of newly-discovered evidence was “without merit.”

Days’ defense team also lost their request to have an expert testify about false confessions. The judge wrote: “(S)uch testimony has been held to be inadmissible by New York courts. New York courts have held that false confessions and circumstances surrounding such confessions are within the understanding of the average juror.

However, Wetzel did order a “limited purpose” hearing to determine if two of Days’ fellow inmates were acting as agents of law enforcement when Days allegedly made incriminating statements to them while behind bars. The defense claims the inmates elicited information from Days to get their own sentences reduced.

Days, now 45, has been incarcerated for nine years, since he was arrested in the killings of Archie Harris and Betty Ramcharan. He was convicted of both murders in 2004 after his first trial ended with a hung jury.

That conviction was overturned last year, when four defense witnesses, including a magistrate judge and a police officer, testified that they saw Days in Goldsboro, N.C., between Nov. 19 and 21, 1996, when it is believed the victims were killed. Following the hearings, Judge Jeffrey Cohen ruled that Days’ trial lawyer had not done enough to investigate an alibi: that he was in North Carolina when the crime was committed. He also granted Days’ claim of ineffective counsel, finding that defense lawyer Christopher Chan had failed to take advantage of DNA evidence to raise reasonable doubt.

The bodies of Harris, 79, and Ramcharan, 35, were discovered in Harris’ Berkley Circle home Nov. 21, 1996. Harris was on a blood-soaked carpet next to a bloody baseball bat in his bedroom; Ramcharan was in a bathroom, next to a kitchen knife, a plastic bag over her head and an electric cord around her neck.

Days’ mother, Stella, used to work for Harris and accused him of sexually abusing her several months before the killings. Her son, who had a lengthy criminal record, was not arrested until February 2001, after he violated a protection order by going to his ex-girlfriend’s home. After hours of questioning by detectives, Days acknowledged going to Harris’ home to confront him about the sexual abuse allegations. He said Harris hit him with a baseball bat and that he took the bat from the man after pretending to be unconscious. He said he hit Harris with it and stabbed him, and then slashed Ramcharan in the throat when she walked into the room.

No forensic evidence linked Days to the bloody scene; prosecutors relied on the videotaped confession. Assistant Westchester County District Attorneys Perry Perrone and Christine O’Connor will prosecute Days in his third trial. Days will be defneded by a team of lawyers led by the Manhattan-based Exoneration Initiative.

He is due back in court on May 21.

Judge under fire again by defense, who claim bias

State Supreme Court Justice William A. Wetzel is being criticized again by defense lawyers again for showing bias toward prosecutors, this time here in Westchester County.

Today, one of the Westchester Legal Aid lawyers for Tyrone Simmons, a Bronx guy on trial for rape during a 2007 home invasion in Yonkers, asked for a mistrial in the case because of Wetzel’s behavior in the courtroom.

Defense attorney Jeanne Mettler told the judge this morning that over the last two days of the trial, which began Tuesday, he has treated the defense “with disregard, if not with disdain.” She made several references to Wetzel’s comments and actions, but he simply referred to the record as being “clear” and denied her motion for a mistrial.

“Look, I’m just trying to do the right thing,” he said. “I respect your zealous defense, but we have to move on.”

Wetzel, who was transfered from Manhattan to Westchester courts a few months ago, was harshly rebuked by an appeals court for the way he treated the defense during the 1998 cybersex torture trial of Oliver Jovanovic, a Columbia University student. According to published reports about the trial, Jovanovic’s defense lawyers accused Wetzel of being biased against their client, saying he allowed the accuser to lie on the witness stand. Twice, defense lawyer Jack Litman asked for a mistrial, citing the judge’s behavior in front of the jury.

Jovanovic was convicted by a jury of kidnapping and sexually assaulting the 20-year-old woman he met over the Internet. Wetzel sentenced him to 15 years in prison, but an appeals court threw out the conviction and blamed Wetzel for “gutting” Jovanovic’s right to testify by misusing the rape shield law. Read more about it here. When prosecutors asked for a re-trial, another judge dismissed the entire case against Jovanovic “in the interest of justice,” especially after his accuser refused to testify at a second trial.

A year before the Jovanovic trial, Wetzel was accused by another defense attorney of allowing prosecutors to hide evidence that could have helped a murder suspect on trial in his courtroom. Click here to read that story.

Back here in Westchester, I guess we’ll have to wait to see if Mettler appeals the verdict in the Tyrone Simmons case.