Prosecutorial misconduct lawsuits prompt depositions of Acting Queens DA, top prosecutors

An aerial view of the Queens Criminal Courthouse.  Eagle  file photo by David Brand

An aerial view of the Queens Criminal Courthouse. Eagle file photo by David Brand

By David Brand

As Queens voters head to the polls Tuesday to elect a new top prosecutor, the current one, Acting District Attorney John Ryan, will sit in his office answering questions during the first portion of a 16-hour deposition related to three prosecutorial misconduct lawsuits.

The three lawsuits — each filed by men who were wrongfully convicted in Queens Supreme Court — claim that top executives in the DA’s Office implemented an “office policy that was indifferent to misconduct and rewarded prosecutors for ‘winning’ cases,” according to one of the complaints

The lawsuits also claim that Queens DA policy blocked information-sharing between the witness protection division and trial prosecutors, a measure referred to as a “Chinese Wall” that resulted in failures to disclose evidence or potentially exculpatory information to defense attorneys.

“The misconduct causing our clients to be convicted came about because of policies at the DA’s Office,” Attorney Joel Rudin, who represents the three men, told the Eagle

Assistant district attorneys “were evaluated on their success in winning convictions, but virtually never disciplined or evaluated for violating the fair trial rights of the defendants they prosecuted,” Rudin wrote in court documents last month.

“As a result, trial prosecutors would either deliberately, recklessly, negligently, or ignorantly” withhold discovery materials, he added.

The plaintiffs include Kareem Bellamy, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 14 years in prison before his conviction was overturned. His reversal was based on evidence of severe police misconduct, as well as the trial prosecutor’s behavior at summation and failure to turn over materials favorable to Bellamy — including information about thousands of dollars in relocation funds that the DA’s Office gave the witness who identified Bellamy. 

Another plaintiff, Ricardo Benitez, was wrongfully convicted of robbing an electronics store in 2009 and spent six years in prison before his conviction was reversed at appeal. A Queens assistant district attorney accused NYPD officers of manipulating a suspect lineup and photo array so that an eyewitness would identify Benitez, even though he didn’t fit the description of the suspect. Despite those violations, the same ADA submitted the identification to the DA’s Office, which resulted in criminal charges and indictment. The misleading elements of the identification were never turned over to defense attorneys — a violation of disclosure laws, the complaint alleges.

The third plaintiff, Rhian Taylor, was convicted of murdering an acquaintance at a party in Laurelton in 2007, but his conviction was reversed in 2015. Taylor’s civil complaint claims that a Queens prosecutor did not disclose to defense attorneys information that threatened the credibility of two eyewitnesses; nor did she explain how she helped them avoid criminal charges. 

Starting today, Ryan will be deposed for 16 total hours, according to an agreement included in court documents. 

“Our intent is to get the full truth of what the Queens DA did with these witnesses and defendants,” said Ilann Maazel, an attorney from the law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, which is providing additional counsel for Bellamy.. “We want to uncover the truth.” 

Other top Queens DA officials, including Executive Assistant District Attorney Robert Masters, Deputy Executive Assistant District Attorney John Castellano, Director of Trial Advocacy Kevin Duddy and Deputy Bureau Chief Debra Lynn Pomodore will also be deposed in coming weeks, according to court documents.

To support his claim that the Queens DA’s Office ignored prosecutorial misconduct, Rudin compiled a list of nearly 120 convictions where appellate judges ruled that Queens ADAs failed to disclose information to defense attorneys or otherwise committed misconduct. Many of the convictions were reversed and at least 84 of those appellate decisions occurred since 1991, the year late DA Richard Brown took office.

“Instead of disciplining such prosecutors, the District Attorney’s policy, custom or practice was to give them raises, promotions and commendations, based in part on their record of winning at trial and extracting guilty pleas even in weak cases,” Benitez’s complaint states.

A spokesperson for the Queens DA’s Office did not answer specific questions about when the office had disciplined ADAs in the past or about its use of the so-called “Chinese Wall” policy.

“Beyond stating that this lawsuit will be vigorously defended, the Queens District Attorney's Office never comments on pending litigation,” the Queens DA spokesperson said in an email. 

Two former Queens prosecutors, who asked to remain anonymous talking about the office, said assistant district attorneys were disciplined, but punishment was typically handled quietly.

For example, the ADAs were moved to other bureaus or divisions or encouraged to resign from the office, the former prosecutors said.

But discipline of prosecutors is rarely made public, except in high-profile cases like former Queens ADA Claude Stuart, who lied to a judge to secure a murder conviction. Brown, the DA at the time, forced Stuart to resign.

The City Law Department said it had reviewed discovery materials and opted to continue defending against the claims.

“These claims have not been substantiated,” said Law Department spokesperson Nicholas Paolucci.

Paolucci did not respond to a question about whether the deposition transcripts would be made public.

Naming specific NYPD officers and the NYPD itself is standard procedure in wrongful arrests or conviction lawsuits against the city, but it is much harder to sue district attorneys’ offices because plaintiffs must demonstrate that misconduct was based on office policy. Prosecutors are generally shielded from litigation, but on rare occasions, plaintiffs can name them as defendants in lawsuits against the city.

The ability to name prosecutors from the Queens DA’s Office and depose high-ranking officials was made possible by a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit earlier this year in the Bellamy case. The appellate court determined that the DA is a New York City policymaker who oversees training, supervision and discipline of ADAs, The New York Law Journal wrote.

Veteran appellate attorney Harold Ferguson of the Legal Aid Society said the “rare” opportunity to take a deposition from a DA is due to “all the legwork” that Rudin did to compile the litany of reversals where judges noted prosecutorial misconduct.

“All these cases grouped together could show a specific pattern,” said Ferguson, who worked with Rudin to get two 1993 murder convictions reversed. In that case, an appellate court determined that a Manhattan prosecutor failed to disclose the extent that he had assisted a key witness, enabling her to get a lenient sentence on a drug charge and helping her grandmother relocate.

Defense attorney Glenn Garber, who founded the Exoneration Initiative, agreed. He called depositions of DAs and other top prosecutors “unusual.”

Nevertheless, he said, online media reports and court records have helped attorneys more easily recognize patterns in prosecutorial conduct.

“It’s important to be able to challenge DAs and it’s less difficult to do that in this information age,” Garber said.

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated that every case in Rudin’s list of appellate decisions where prosecutors were admonished for misconduct resulted in a reversal. Some of those convictions were affirmed. The Eagle regrets the error.