Public Defenders Get First Crack at Queens Murder Cases

Jamal Johnson is the director of Legal Aid’s new Homicide Defense Task Force. Photo courtesy of Jamal Johnson

Jamal Johnson is the director of Legal Aid’s new Homicide Defense Task Force. Photo courtesy of Jamal Johnson

By David Brand

A New Year’s Eve stabbing in Far Rockaway was the last reported murder of 2018. Last week, the case marked another milestone: It’s the first assigned to The Legal Aid Society under a new arrangement that prioritizes public defenders as counsel for low-income clients charged with murder.

On Jan. 1, New York City courts began assigning murder cases against low-income defendants to public defenders instead of 18-B panel attorneys — experienced defense attorneys who are recommended by judges.

The first defendants to be represented by public defenders under the new rules were arraigned in Queens Criminal Court on Jan. 5.

Far Rockaway resident Jaisean Bunch, 18, and Brooklyn resident Aneudy Rodriguez, 18, are charged with second-degree murder for allegedly stabbing Devonte Brandon, 21, to death in front of a McDonald’s on Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway shortly after 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2018, according to the criminal complaint.

Bunch is represented by Legal Aid attorneys as part of the organization’s new Homicide Defense Task Force, led by Director Jamal Johnson. Rodriguez is represented by Kenneth Deane from Queens Law Associates. Both are scheduled to return to court on Jan. 23.

Johnson said the new arrangement ensures that low-income defendants get comprehensive representation even before they are arraigned.

“The attorney handling the case, the investigator, the whole team has been able to get a head start in terms of investigating based on the structure of the task force,” Johnson told the Eagle. “We’re able to send out a team at the earliest notification of someone being arrested for murder. We’ve been able to do an extraordinary amount of investigation pre-arraignment as opposed to the old system.”

Typically, 18-B lawyers met clients for the first time at arraignment. In order to avoid conflicts of interest, the attorneys registered on the 18-B panel will still be called for cases involving three or more defendants and in murder cases where a witness in the case was previously represented by public defenders, according to the new assigned counsel plan.

Johnson said the Homicide Defense Task Force includes ten attorneys along with several investigators, case handlers and mitigation specialists who work citywide. In addition to Bunch’s case, Legal Aid has been assigned one other murder case in Brooklyn.

Last year, there were 63 total murders in Queens, the lowest number since 1965, according to the Queens District Attorney’s office. Overall, New York City recorded 289 murders in 2018.

Johnson said the new structure will have a “tremendous impact” for defendants charged with murder in 2019 and beyond.

“I think the system works best when prosecutors are not the only entity doing the investigation and the defense has more of an opportunity to do so,” Johnson said.