Additional reporting by Jonathan Custodio
Court administrators have quietly decided to take away criminal cases from a recently elected Bronx Supreme Court judge who has faced a barrage of criticism from the New York Post, NYPD officers, and Bronx prosecutors, according to two courthouse sources with knowledge of the matter.
Justice Naita Semaj-Williams will be moving from the criminal to the civil term of Bronx Supreme Court, according to the sources. Her last day is slated to be tomorrow, at least for now.
Semaj-Williams and a spokesperson for the state’s Office of Court Administration, Lucian Chalfen, declined to comment on any specific move that may be taking place.
In an email, Chalfen stated, “Currently we are in the process of evaluating the judicial needs of a number of courts in New York City and will have specific changes in the near future.”
Over the last two years, Semaj-Williams’s actions in three cases drew intense criticism from law enforcement officials and The Post. One of them caused Governor Kathy Hochul to take the unusual action of announcing the arrest of a suspect in a manslaughter case who Semaj-Williams had released a day earlier without bail.
Semaj-Williams released the defendant on April 5, prompting The Post to label her “notoriously lenient.”
At arraignment prosecutors accused the man, Tyresse Minter, of putting his 15-year-old stepson in a fatal “full body restraint.” They also pointed to his violent criminal record, noting that the fatal incident occurred just one month after he was released from state prison on parole. Prosecutors said Minter had two previous convictions for a felony robbery and an assault, which they said involved the shooting of a victim three times in the back as the victim tried to run away.
Minter’s attorneys argued that this intrafamily incident was an unintentional tragedy, and pointed out that their client had never tried to flee from authorities after the fatal encounter, which took place in January. In the meantime, they said, Minter had attended family court hearings and stayed in touch with parole authorities.
Citing his alleged lack of flight risk, the official legal basis for setting bail, Semaj-Williams declared that supervised release was appropriate for Minter.
“I recognize that these are very serious charges. I recognize that a child was dead, and regardless of how that comes to be, it’s a horrible thing,” said the judge. “But in setting bail or remanding someone, there has to be considerations regarding that individual person, and their specific facts and circumstances, and whether or not they’re going to return to court.”
The announcement came as Hochul, who faced attacks from Republicans for supposedly being soft-on-crime during her election bid, spent weeks amid budget negotiations pushing fellow Democrats to further roll back New York’s bail reform law.
In announcing Minter’s re-arrest, Hochul said, “We will continue working closely with the Bronx District Attorney’s office throughout this process as it prosecutes the charges, and we will continue coordinating with our partners in law enforcement to strengthen public safety across the State.”
“I cannot state how absolutely incredible his testimony was, she said of the officer in a ruling last March. “It was inconsistent with the video;, it was inconsistent with his fellow officer’s testimony;, it was self-serving;, it had no value.”
Semaj-Williams is a polarizing figure in the Bronx courthouse.
Several current and former defense attorneys praised her patience with defendants and what they frame as her refusal to bow to the political headwinds.
“Semaj’s reassignment will have a strong chilling effect on judicial behavior, bail reform, and the fairness of the criminal legal system,” said Oded Oren, a former Bronx Defenders attorney who recently founded a judicial watchdog organization called Scrutinize. “The message to judges is clear: if you do not capitulate to prosecutorial interests and instead exercise independent judgment, you will risk negative media coverage and severe professional consequences from the Office of Court Administration.”
Current and former prosecutors, however, have complained about her temperament on the bench and argue she is biased on behalf of the accused.
Last year those frustrations resulted in a complaint from the Bronx District Attorney’s Office to the state’s judicial conduct commission, according to one former Bronx prosecutor who confirmed to THE CITY that he was interviewed by an investigator with the commission.
At issue was a courtroom incident in which Semaj-Williams took objection to a prosecution plea offer of seven years in prison in a shooting case and ordered a district attorney’s supervisor out of her courtroom, calling him “a waste of everything,” according to a transcript reviewed by THE CITY.
The state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct declined to comment on the consequences of that probe.
While Semaj-Williams declined to comment to THE CITY on a move out of the criminal part of the court, The Post reported she may be interested in another move.
On Thursday, it reported that she had applied to become the presiding justice for the Appellate Division’s First Department, which covers criminal and civil cases on appeal in Manhattan and the Bronx.