Oil dumper: Castro’s out, Quinn is in

Accused oil spilling contractor Anthony Castrella has hired a big gun to help him stay out of jail.

Acclaimed Westchester defense lawyer Andrew Quinn is now representing Castrella and his company, Cast Construction, which spilled hundreds of gallons of heating oil in Harrison in 2007. Quinn, a seasoned trial lawyer, appeared with Casterella today before state Supreme Court Justice Robert Neary.

Castrella was being represented by the firm of Gallo, Feinstein and Naishtut, who assigned Tony Castro to be of counsel to the case. Castro, as you may know, is running for Westchester County District Attorney in a Democratic primary against DA Janet DiFiore. When asked about the switch, Castro said he was “only covering” Casterella’s defense on behalf of the firm and that the firm, not him personally, was relieved of the case.

Quinn has the unenviable task of arguing the case before a judge who recently gave Casterella an ultimatum: go to jail for six months or go to trial on criminal environmental charges.

Neary was unhappy that after many months, Casterella had yet to pay the full $75,000 fine that was part of his plea of guilty to felony endangering public health or the environment. If he had paid the fine in full, he would be out on five years’ probation.

Now, he’s paying Quinn instead and facing up to four years in prison.

Casterella is accused of rupturing an oil line during a property renovation at 57 Kenilworth Road in December 2007. The rip caused more than 200 gallons of heating oil to seep into a neighbor’s property, the groundwater and a quarter-acre of town wetlands. Prosecutors said Casterella made no effort to clean up the mess.

Casterella is facing the felony environmental charge as well as misdemeanor charges of falsifying business records and criminal mischief. He could be fined $150,000 if convicted.

Quinn is well-known around these parts as a legal eagle, having gotten two cops off the hook in high-profile cases. One was ex-Mount Kisco officer George Bubaris, who was charged with manslaughter in the 2007 death of drunken immigrant Rene Javier Perez. The other was Yonkers officer Wayne Simoes, who was facing federal civil rights charges for allegedly body-slamming Irma Marquez at a bar. Currently, he is defending a Sleepy Hollow police officer accused of violating the rights of two civilians during separate incidents.

Simoesus Interruptus

OK, it’s not a legal term. But it should be after yesterday.

With all the activity surrounding the breaking terrorism case in the Brieant Courthouse yesterday, I was only able to pop in and out of the Wayne Simoes trial for a few minutes. Here’s what I caught: The prosecution rested after finishing up with Yonkers cop Todd Mendelson. Interestingly, Mendelson did not draw the same glares from some of the assembled throng of Yonkers cops that his partner John Liberatore did after he testified for the prosecution earlier this week.

Mendelson testified that he did not see Simoes throw Marquez to the ground of the restaurant and that Simoes seemed shaken up aftter the incident. But he also testified he didn’t see Simoes’ foot slip as the defense contends happened when he grabbed Irma Marquez inside La Fonda Restaurant. He said Marquez was loud and intoxicated but not a threat. He said he was too close to Simoes and Marquez to actually see what happened. But he said he saw no reason to take her to to the ground.

That was yesterday. Today, Simoes’ side called its video expert, the owner of La Fonda Restaurant, and a Yonkers emergency services cop.

Interestingly, the defense didn’t cross-examine either Julian Santos, the bar owner, or Chris Kowatch, the ESU cop. 

And Judge Kenneth Karas said he was expecting an objection from the prosecution when defense lawyer Andrew Quinn asked video expert Grant Fredericks if he thought Simoes threw or dropped Marquez. Fredericks said he dropped her. Prior to the trial, Karas had ruled that Fredericks wouldn’t be allowed to offer his interpretation of that, just what was happening in each of the 199 frames from the video of the incident .

But the prosecution didn’t object when Quinn asked Fredericks that question. Karas said after the jury left the room today that he expected an objection from the prosecution team of Anna Skotko, Cynthia Dunne, and Benjamin Torrance. But none came. Quinn said he asked because he felt the prosecution had opened the door with its cross-examination of Fredericks. The judge didn’t think so.

“I don’t know why you didn’t object,” the judge said to Skotko.

“It came out of left field,” Skotko said.

Tables Turned

By the time it’s done, the number of witnesses called at the Simoes trial will barely break double digits. The prime testimony for each side will be images from a video surveillance system at La Fonda Restaurant that captured the incident between Yonkers cop Wayne Simoes and Irma Marquez.

The prosecution, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Skotko, has already shown the video six times in two days. It appears to show Simoes lifting Marquez up and then body-slamming her to the ground.

The defense is relying on 199 stills — essentially freeze-frame grabs — from the video to make its case that Simoes slipped on a wet floor and dropped Marquez. Simoes’ lawyer, Andrew Quinn has used many of the stills on cross-examination the first two days of the trial.

But Skotko turned the tables on Quinn yesterday morning, using Quinn’s best evidence to bolster the testimony of Yonkers cop John Liberatore who came under blistering cross-examination from Quinn about what he saw and when he turned away from the scene as it played out in front of him.

Liberatore said he was distracted at one point and looked out the door of the restaurant but turned back to see Simoes throw Marquez to the ground. At Marquez’s state criminal trial last year, he said he didn’t see what happened as Simoes tried to get Marquez away from her stricken niece, Anna Jacquez, who had been knocked unconscious in a barroom brawl. Quinn pointed out that Liberatore also didn’t tell Internal Affairs investigators that he saw Marquez slammed to the floor. Quinn got Liberatore to say “I confused myself” regarding his statement to Internal Affairs.

But Skotko calmly took Quinn’s stills on re-direct and used them to show the position of Liberatore’s head during the incident. The video stills appear to show Liberatore looking at Simoes and Marquez as he picks her up and then takes her to the ground.

The prosecution will rest tomorrow after calling one more witness, Liberatore’s partner, Todd Mendelson. That’ll be five witnesses total. Quinn said he intends to call five witness for the defense, with no decision yet made on whether Simoes will testify. The prosecution might call a rebuttal witness on Tuesday depending on what Quinn’s video expert says on the stand Friday.

The jury could begin its deliberations as early as Tuesday afternoon.

Just asking…

As Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Torrance was getting set to begin his opening remarks today in the Wayne Simoes trial, a steady stream of federal prosecutors, investigators, public affairs people, and support staff made their way up the two flights from the U.S. attorney’s office and into the 5th floor courtroom of Judge Kenneth Karas. 

The prosecutorial parade led one courthouse wag to wonder, “Jeez, is anybody working on the 3rd floor?”

And then there were 13….

The Wayne Simoes trial was down one juror today even before opening arguments began. One of the two alternates selected yesterday for the panel called Judge Kenneth Karas’ chambers early this morning to say her kids were sick and she couldn’t make it in for the trial. Karas seemed to view the news with a slightly raised eyebrow, noting perhaps she’d go back in the jury pool now and get assigned to a six-month RICO case. So now there’s only one alternate to go with the eight men and four women who are sitting on the jury. Judges usually select four alternates when empaneling a jury in a federal criminal trial, but because the Simoes case is expected to take just a week, only two alts were picked.

Simoes gets a jury

Eight men and four women will decide the fate of Yonkers cop Wayne Simoes in the federal criminal trial where he’s accused of slamming Irma Marquez to the floor of a Yonkers restaurant in March 2007.

Jury selection just ended about an hour ago in the Brieant Courthouse. 

The trial is expected to last about a week. A bespectacled Simoes joined his lawyers for every sidebar at Judge Kenneth Karas’ bench today. His wife, Julia, sat in the front row behind the defense table.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Torrance is expected to deliver the prosecution’s opening remarks a little after 9:30 tomorrow morning.

Unlike the last trial in front of Karas which lasted five weeks, testimony in this case is expected to take five days.

Prosecutors will call just a handful of witnesses, including cops who were at the scene with Simoes, paramedics,  Marquez’s niece, and an emergency room doctor who treated Marquez for her injuries – which included a badly bruised face, a broken jaw, and a concussion. Their most important piece of evidence might be the videotape from inside La Fonda Restaurant that appears to show Simoes assaulting Marquez.

But they don’t intend to call Marquez and have declined to say why, citing a policy against discussing trial strategy.

Simoes’ star witness is expected to be a video expert who has broken the infamous security tape down frame by frame.

Tweet goes the trial

Time was all a judge had to do to remind jurors to avoid media coverage of a trial was warn them not to read the newspaper or watch the nightly news until the case was over.

But the explosion of all-points information via instantaneously updated social networking sites and the web in general is forcing judges to adjust their usual admonitions. The Times carried a story a couple of months back about jurors researching cases on the Internet and updating their friends about the trial via Twitter and other sites.

Today, for the first time, Judge Kenneth Karas expanded his pre-trial media warning to include the swelling universe of potential problems in keeping jurors pure. He told them to avoid media coverage of the case, as usual. But then defined media in a sort of “Jury Instruction 2.0” way.

“When I say media I mean newspapers and television news,” he said, “and Twitter and YouTube, MySpace, the whole gamut.”

TMI, jury style

So Judge Kenneth Karas is running potential jurors through the questionnaire for prospective membership on the  Wayne Simoes panel in the Brieant Courthouse a couple of hours ago. Standard questions about relatives who are cops, whether the juror or a relative was ever the victim of a crime or convicted of a crime, whether they knew any of the potential witnesses, the lawyers, or Simoes. 

All was going fine until Karas asked one man, a 62-year-old plumber from Westchester about his family. Three kids, all in school, he replied. What grade level, the judge asked the 62-year-old. Ninth, eighth “and one in kindergarten,” the proud papa replied.

“Wow, you really do have your hands full,” the judge said.

“And this was before Viagra,” the plumber replied, eliciting howls from the 49 other potential jurors as well as observers in the court.

“Now, were there any questions on the questionnaire about that?” the judge asked.

 

UPDATE: The plumber didn’t make the jury cut.

Simoes case reaches jury selection

Jury selection has begun in the federal criminal trial of Yonkers cop Wayne Simoes. The eight-year veteran of the YPD is accused of body-slamming 44-year-old Irma Marquez face-first to the ground of LaFonda Restaurant in March 3, 2007. The selection of the 12 member panel plus four alternates expected to last at least the rest of the day. Judge Kenneth Karas indicated he was looking at tomorrow morning for opening arguments. Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Skotko said she expects to call between six and nine witnesses in the trial that should last about a week. Simoes’ defense contends that he did not slam Marquez to the floor but that he dropped her.