Photo by: Jarrett Murphy
Photo by: Jarrett Murphy
By: Kate Pastor
When Judge John Wilson permanently banned a Bronx prosecutor from his courtroom this spring, he singled her out for "egregious" violations in a case that needlessly sent Segundo Marquez to Rikers Island for eight months while he awaited a fatally flawed 2014 trial.
Before dismissing the case, Wilson tore into the prosecutor, Megan Teesdale, for failing to disclose information material to the defense — notes in her case file showing that the woman whom Marquez allegedly raped told an investigator it was consensual sex for money.
"The excuse you offer, passing the file back forth, no one looking and no one knowing what anything is, saddens me on one level and makes me sick on another," Wilson said before throwing the case out on March 21, according to a partial court transcript first published by the Daily News.
The judge's strong response coupled with the fact neither Teesdale nor anyone else will be disciplined internally, according to former and current spokespeople for the Bronx District Attorney's Office,
highlights the lack of any formal procedures for handling ethical or other infractions by prosecutors within the Bronx District Attorney's Office and beyond.
Defense attorneys say the Marquez dismissal and admonishment was powerful enough to prompt lawyers from the Bronx District Attorney's office to immediately begin making a slew of new Brady disclosures — so-called for the Supreme Court decision obliging prosecutors to turn over information crucial to the defense — in cases pending before Bronx courthouses .
The DA's office adamantly denies the claim. Terry Raskyn, director of public information for the Bronx DA's Office, shot back that it was "ridiculous" to suggest the Marquez case led to any changes since the "office has always emphasized its obligations to turn over material that is proper and required to disclose, Brady and otherwise."
But New York State law leaves it up to prosecutors to decide what's "material" to the defendant's cases, so it's hard to know.
'No discipline per se.'
While multiple sources say the Bronx District Attorney trains its lawyers on how to avoid Brady violations, Raskyn confirms that there are no formal or written procedures for dealing with infractions of any kind, including ethical ones. Each case is handled individually.
"There is no discipline per say," a former Bronx prosecutor says, "It really is a place that you serve at the will of the DA."
Defense lawyers present during the Marquez case claim two supervisors from the Bronx DA's office were in the courtroom during the closing argument by a defense attorney. Only after it had wrapped up did one hand over the crucial information in the prosecutor's file. The DA's office then asked for a dismissal, incensing the judge.
"To my mind, this is an utter and complete disgrace — not just for you, but for your office in general," Wilson said.
Steven Reed, the now-retired Bronx District Attorney spokesperson, responding to questions in April after the Teesdale story surfaced, saw no need for action. He explained that the exculpatory material in Teesdale's case "was not prominent in the file" and was turned over immediately after it was discovered. "We believe our assistant's account of how this happened, and do not believe that the judge took the time to consider it," he wrote.
He continued: "We see no reason to discipline anyone."
Indeed, nobody accused Teesdale of intentionally withholding evidence. Even the judge refused to believe it was done on purpose, though he did cite her for "gross negligence." It is unclear whether Wilson or anyone else referred her to the court's disciplinary committee, but such a move would be rare, according to David Bookstaver, spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration.
A long-standing concern
The lack of ethics discipline is not news to Joel Rudin, an attorney who has been involved in "lawsuits to try to hold New York City responsible for the indifference of the Bronx District Attorney to Brady violations," and won a 2001 appellate decision in Ramos v. New York City, which ended up yielding a $5 million settlement, at that time the largest amount ever paid by New York City in a wrongful conviction case.
In 1985, Alberto Ramos was falsely convicted of child rape in the Bronx and served seven brutal years in prison for the crime. In his case against the city, the court held that the city could be liable for misconduct and must provide personnel records showing whether prosecutors were disciplined for Brady violations.
Rudin compelled the Bronx DA's Office to disclose personnel records for prosecutors involved in 72 Brady violation cases from 1975 through 1996. He then got access to records from 2001 through 2007 through two subsequent lawsuits, Poventud v. City of New York and Maldonado v. City of New York, involving former co-defendants who were falsely convicted for attempted murder and robbery due to concealment of Brady material. Oral depositions taken for those two cases — in which claims were later dropped against the DA's office but not the NYPD — included that of current Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, who has held that position since 1989.
Rudin wrote about the material in the Fordham Law Review in 2011, revealing that with nearly 400 prosecutors and hundreds of support staff, the Bronx DA's Office had "no published code or rules of behavior for prosecutors, no schedule of potential sanctions for misbehavior or objective standards governing when such sanctions will be imposed, no written or formal procedure for investigating or disciplining prosecutors, and no procedure for keeping a record of prosecutors who have been cited for or are known to have engaged in improper behavior." Rudin added: "Officials could identify just one prosecutor since 1975 who, according to the Office's records, has been disciplined in any respect for misbehavior while prosecuting a criminal case."
"I imagine you could get that at most corporations, so why not a district attorney's office?" Rudin says now.
The lack of any set disciplinary procedure does not apply to Brady violations alone, as evidenced by the case of Jen Troiano, the Bronx assistant district attorney arrested in 2010 for a crash involving the driving under the influence.
News reports allege that Troiano had been responsible for two similar incidents, one in a city vehicle in Upstate New York in 2005, for which she avoided arrest, and another in 2009, when she arrested after leaving a Christmas party. In that case, the charge was allegedly voided after she told cops she worked for the district attorney. She allegedly tried use her connections again in 2010, but was arrested and charged after being involved in a three-car pileup on the Major Deegan Expressway while on her way home from a party. She refused to take a Breathalyzer test.
Troiano was charged on Aug. 27, 2010 with reckless driving and operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and pleaded guilty to reduced charges from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office on March 2, 2012. In what Raskyn describes as a lateral move, Troiano was transferred from Arson & Economic Crime (with a specialty in animal cruelty cases) to the Appeals Bureau about two months after her arrest, but continued to work for the Bronx DA until she was fired on Jan. 13 2012, shortly before her guilty plea.
The case surfaced while the Bronx DA was prosecuting more than a dozen New York Police Department officers for giving special treatment to colleagues looking to avoid parking tickets and other low-level infraction and gave the appearance of a stark double-standard. That image was exacerbated by the fact that Troiano, for months after her arrest, continued to work under the same investigative division as rackets, which was prosecuting the ticket-fixing cases.
Beyond the Bronx
When it comes to Brady violations, some attorneys with knowledge of the city's prosecutors' offices argue that mistakes often occur because inexperienced lawyers are given huge caseloads with little direct supervision and tasked with deciphering what material to turn over under a confusing statute.
They know they are under scrutiny, as questions about prosecutorial conduct abound both beyond the Bronx and beyond Brady violations.
Misconduct of a totally different kind has kept the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office in the headlines for a year. The alleged indifference to the fabrication of evidence in multiple cases linked to Detective Louis Scarcella has led the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office to review dozens of cases, some of which have already led to exonerations. Amid the continued investigations into old cases, new Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson is considering implementing more rigid ethics policies.
"We are in the process of organizing a more formalized ethics body in our employee policies and regulation handbook. As of now we are going on a case by case basis," according to Helen Peterson, spokeswoman for Thompson.