Two controversial cases in the news are prompting tough questions about how the seven Democratic primary candidates for Queens district attorney would handle charges of prosecutorial misconduct and uphold the integrity of convictions.
At two debates this week, the candidates responded to questions about the Central Park Five case and the recent sentencing in Queens of Chanel Lewis to life in prison without parole after his conviction for murder.
Queens stands out as the sole borough without a formal conviction review unit to assess where prosecutors may have obtained convictions through improper means.
Candidates Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik and Jose Nieves all pledge to establish units to revisit past cases that new evidence suggests may have resulted in wrongful convictions.
But they diverge on the details of implementation — and on how they view both cases as widely criticized tests of prosecutorial power.
At Tuesday’s NY1 forum, City Councilmember Rory Lancman (D-Queens) was the lone candidate willing to comment specifically on why the Lewis case merited review. The others deferred, citing the possibility of an appeal coming before the next Queens DA.
“This prosecution troubles me deeply. There is nothing wrong with us talking about it,” Lancman said. “This is a case that has all the echoes of another Central Park Five case.”
He added: “I will look at this case carefully.”
Chanel Lewis Trial on Trial
On April 23, a Queens judge sentenced Chanel Lewis to life in prison without parole for the murder of Karina Vetrano, a 30-year-old woman who was strangled while jogging in a Howard Beach park.
In the wake of his sentencing, critics raised questions about an aggressive sweep for DNA evidence from black and Latino men in the area; the possibility of prosecutorial misconduct, allegations of evidence withheld by the prosecution that could constitute violations of federal law; potentially improper deliberations between jurors, and whether Lewis’ confession was coerced.
Three candidates — Katz and Nieves, in addition to Lancman — said that they would review the Chanel Lewis case if elected district attorney.
Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney now in private practice, said she believed reviews should be referred to an outside agencies like the attorney general’s office or a special prosecutor.
“The pressure to get someone prosecuted for this crime must be done with justice and fairness, and in this case I don’t think it was done,” Lugo added, while not specifying what aspects of the prosecution by the late Queens District Attorney Richard Brown led to her concern.
Greg Lasak, a retired New York State Supreme Court justice, issued an evidentiary ruling on the Lewis case prior to stepping down in mid September and said he could not comment specifically on the case.
Showing All Evidence
Addressing an issue that Legal Aid defense attorneys highlighted in the Lewis case, Lasak did say at the WNYC forum that he takes seriously the responsibility of prosecutors to share all available evidence with the defense at trial, through the so-called Brady rule established under federal law.
“I will have monthly meetings run by the Appeals Bureau Chief to educate the assistants on the latest law on Brady and discovery and make sure everyone is following the latest case law on it,” Lasak said.
Cabán said that the Brady rule is “the most abused” in the DA’s office, and that its limitations create an environment where DAs are “essentially left to police themselves.”
“By its definition, it’s information that the defense doesn’t have a reason to know about,” Caban said. “We need to retrain on Brady and have zero tolerance for [violations] going forward.”
Mina Malik, a former prosecutor in both Queens and Washington, D.C., said she’d boost training at the DA’s office in order for prosecutors to understand “advanced Brady disclosures.” She said at Tuesday’s NY1 forum that the “case may come back to the conviction review unit.”
Jose Nieves, a former deputy chief in the New York State Attorney General’s office, said at the Tuesday forum that his review unit would be an “independent advisory council” comprised of representatives of agencies, advocates and criminal justice reformers.
Return of the Central Park Five
Thanks to the Netflix series “When They See Us,” the 1990 Central Park Five prosecution is coming under renewed scrutiny, especially for the use of confessions obtained from teenagers without attorneys or parents present. The five teenagers of color setenced to prison in that case for allegedly raping a jogger later had their convictions overturned, after another person confessed to the assault.
All seven Democratic candidates say they want interrogations videotaped from beginning to end, which avoids the kind of selective taping that marked the Central Park Five evidence.
“In general we need to videotape confessions, make sure they’re done from the beginning to the end. We need to make sure that cases are reviewed, and when something like the Central Park Five comes out and the misconduct there we need to make sure we are reviewing all of their cases as well,” Katz said, adding that police officers and prosecutors needed to be held to a “higher standard of accountability.”
Cabán was the first candidate to take the Central Park Five discussion off the debate stage. On Tuesday, she held a press conference calling for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance to launch an independent investigation of past cases handled by Central Park Five prosecutor Linda Fairstein.
At the NY1 forum, Cabán singled out Greg Lasak and asked him to join the effort to review Fairstein’s record.
“That’s a little rash, Lasak responded. “I have to know more details about this.”
All six other candidates resoundingly agreed that Fairstein’s cases should be reviewed.
At the WNYC forum, Cabán also asked Lasak why he didn’t return a $250 campaign contribution made by Fairstein in April until prompted by a Queens Daily Eagle article.
He said that he “didn’t know we had that contribution,” which he then donated to the Innocence Project.
The primary election takes place June 25.
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