By David Brand
A Queens judge on Friday denied the Queens District Attorney’s unusual motion to kick the defense team off the case of a man charged with murder in the February friendly fire death of an NYPD detective.
Prosecutors said dismissing the Legal Aid Society from the case would be in the best interest of defendant Christopher Ransom, who is charged with second-degree murder for allegedly causing the death of Detective Brian Simonsen. Simonsen was shot and killed by another officer while responding to a robbery inside a Richmond Hill cellphone store, where Ransom allegedly brandished a fake pistol.
Another Legal Aid attorney represented a potential witness in the case, prompting prosecutor Shawn Clark to file a motion claiming a conflict of interest and stating that dismissing Legal Aid would ensure Ransom received a fair trial.
Legal Aid countered that it had ceased representing the other person as soon as the DA’s Office informed them that he may be a witness in the case. They questioned why the DA’s Office had waited two months before disclosing the potential conflict.
Justice Kenneth Holder assigned an independent attorney to discuss the situation with Ransom and to determine whether he understood the situation. The attorney briefed Holder on his conversation with Ransom, and Holder asked Ransom to describe what he thought was happening. He also asked Ransom whether he thought Legal Aid could provide fair representation.
As roughly 75 NYPD officers and brass watched from the courtroom gallery, Ransom described the situation and said he believed Legal Aid would still work “zealously on [his] behalf.”
“And they will represent me fully and I’m confident it’s going to help me in my case,” he added.
Holder later said that Ransom had “adequately described the situation” and summarized Ransom’s statements to the court.
“I hear you saying you are confident Legal Aid will represent you to their fullest,” Holder said.
“That’s what I’m saying,” Ransom responded.
Holder then ruled that Legal Aid could remain on the case and directed Clark, the assistant district attorney on the case, to hand over discovery materials to the defense team.
The potential conflict of representation arose from an incident that occurred days before the tragic shooting death of Simonsen.
Ransom had allegedly robbed another Queens cellphone store in the area earlier in February. He allegedly sold one of the stolen phones to a man named Elijah Hanley, who Clark said he may call as a witness.
Hanley was arrested and charged with fifth-degree possession of stolen property on Feb. 15, three days after Simonsen’s death, and allegedly told detectives that he knew the phone was stolen when he purchased it. He was represented by another Legal Aid attorney.
In April, Clark filed a motion asking Holder to disqualify Legal Aid from representing Ransom.
“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.”
Holder acknowledged the prosecution’s argument before issuing his determination.
Queens Acting DA John Ryan told the Eagle that he has “no problem” with the decision.
“We believed there was a potential conflict and therefore it was appropriate for us to raise the issue with the Court early on in the proceedings,” Ryan said. “The court assigned an independent council to advise the defendant of the potential pitfalls and took great care in rendering its decision.”
A Legal Aid spokesperson said the agency looks forward to continuing to represent Ransom.
“Mr. Ranson has a constitutional right to counsel of his choice, and we are glad that the court upheld that right today,” the spokesperson said.
Though Ransom did not pull the trigger, he is charged with murder under the state’s controversial felony murder provision, which enables prosecutors to charge a defendant with murder if a victim died while the defendant was committing another felony.
Simonsen’s partner and Ransom were both shot in the encounter, but survived.
Ransom’s co-defendant Jagger Freeman is also charged with murder because he allegedly served as a lookout for the heist.