By David Brand
The Queens District Attorney’s Office is claiming a conflict of counsel and requesting that a state Supreme Court justice replace the defense team representing a man charged with felony murder in the death of a Queens cop.
Prosecutors argue that disqualifying the defense team is in the best interest of defendant Christopher Ransom, who is charged with felony murder for his alleged role in the February shooting death of NYPD Detective Brian Simonsen. But Ransom’s attorneys dispute the unusual maneuver and question why the DA’s office waited two months after they took on the case to file the motion for recusal.
Simonsen was killed by another officer in a friendly fire shootout while responding to a reported cellphone store robbery in Richmond Hill. Ransom was allegedly inside the store brandishing a fake gun, which prompted the police response. Attorney Mihea Kim from The Legal Aid Society represents Ransom.
Another Legal Aid attorney formerly represented one of the prosecution’s witnesses, who was charged with a misdemeanor that prosecutors say relates to Ransom’s case. In April, Assistant District Attorney Shawn Clark filed a motion asking Justice Kenneth Holder to disqualify Legal Aid from representing Ransom, who will return to court June 11.
“Two lawyers from the same law firm simultaneously representing two clients whose interests actually conflict cannot give either client loyalty,” the motion states. “Therefore, the defendant’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel is substantially impaired and new counsel needs to be assigned to guarantee the defendant’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel is not violated.”
The witness, Elijah Hanley, allegedly purchased an iPhone from Ransom for $450 that prosecutors say Ransom stole from a cellphone store during a previous robbery, according to the motion. Hanley was arrested and charged with fifth-degree possession of stolen property on Feb. 15, three days after Simonsen’s death. He allegedly told detectives that he knew the phone was stolen when he purchased it.
“It would be a sound exercise of this Court’s discretion to remove present counsel from the case and assign new counsel,” the motion continues. “[T]he People respectfully request the Court grant the People’s motion and assign new counsel.”
Legal Aid says no conflict exists, however. Their attorneys contend that the DA’s Office sat on the information until mid-April, nearly two months after prosecutors first learned about the connection between Ransom and Hanley. They also say that Hanley’s connection to Ransom does not relate to the incident that led to Simonsen’s shooting.
“We are very concerned that the Queens District Attorney’s Office would seek to deny our client his Constitutional right to counsel of his choice,” said Jamal Johnson, attorney-in-charge of Legal Aid’s Homicide Defense Task Force. “We are further concerned that the Office withheld key information about the identity of one of their witnesses in what appears to be a transparent effort to manufacture a conflict for strategic advantage. The Legal Aid Society’s Homicide Defense Task Force — a team which includes several attorneys, mitigation specialists, investigators, forensic and digital units, and other resources — has represented Mr. Ransom since the inception of this case and we have the necessary resources to provide him the robust defense that he is entitled to.”
When the attorney representing Hanley learned that Hanley would testify against Ransom, she recused herself from the case, Legal Aid wrote in a motion responding to the DA’s Office. Ransom’s attorneys informed him that another Legal Aid attorney had represented Hanley, but Ransom nevertheless decided to retain his defense team, the defense motion states.
Hanley’s misdemeanor charge is not “substantially” related to the charges against Ransom, the motion continues.
“The prosecution provides no factual information to support a finding that Mr. Hanley’s misdemeanor possession of stolen property case is materially related to the highly publicized 23-count indictment against Mr, Ransom,” Legal Aid wrote in its motion. “Mr. Hanley’s minor misdemeanor charge has very little significance in the overall litigation against Mr. Ransom.”
“Insofar as the People are worried that The Legal Aid Society’s continued representation of Mr. Ransom will result in a violation of Mr. Ransom’s right to effective assistance of counsel, there is no reason for concern,” Legal Aid continued. “The People’s motion to recuse counsel should be denied.”
Ransom’s alleged look-out Jagger Freeman is also charged with felony murder for the role prosecutors say he played in the robbery that led to Simonsen’s death. Freeman is represented by a private attorney.
The Queens DA’s Office declined to comment on the case.