Brooklyn Prosecutor’s Office Is Accused of Detaining Trial Witnesses
By MOSI SECRET
The office of the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, routinely detained trial witnesses against their will in hotel rooms as a part of forced interrogations, according to depositions taken in a civil rights lawsuit against the city, calling into question whether strong-handed tactics by prosecutors played a role in dozens of troubled convictions already under review.
The detentions, which a top paralegal described in detail in a sworn deposition, took place during the 1990s under the office’s now defunct “hotel custody program.” Investigators held witnesses who prosecutors believed could help build cases in undisclosed hotels, under armed guards, cutting them off from visitors and telephone calls.
Witnesses were also brought to the office of the district attorney, where they were compelled to testify, according to the testimony from the paralegal, Liz N. Fitzpatrick. Many elements of her testimony were echoed by two other former employees with the district attorney’s office who were deposed.
The claims came in court documents filed on Wednesday in the case of Jabbar Collins, who is suing the city after winning his release after serving 16 years in prison for a murder he said he did not commit. His conviction was tossed out after he provided evidence that the police and prosecutors coerced false testimony.
Joel Rudin, a lawyer for Mr. Collins, filed the documents as part of a motion asking a federal judge to force Mr. Hynes to testify about several issues that Mr. Rudin said he found troubling, including the hotel custody program. Mr. Rudin also filed testimony from Ms. Fitzpatrick, saying that many of the arrest warrants used to compel witness testimony were signed and notarized by paralegals in the name of prosecutors rather than by the prosecutors themselves, which is illegal.
City lawyers have fought the subpoena for Mr. Hynes to testify, arguing in a motion filed last week that he should not be deposed because other prosecutors in the office can answer questions without his involvement.
In a statement on Wednesday, Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for Mr. Hynes’s office, said: “We are not commenting on the ongoing civil suit. But it is not, nor has it ever been, the practice of this office to hold people in hotel rooms against their will without judicial intervention.”
The city’s law department also released a statement: “Mr. Rudin’s hyperbolic characterizations of various alleged practices in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office are irresponsible and absurd. Our court papers fully address the legal issues.”
Mr. Collins’s civil rights lawsuit claims that his wrongful conviction was not an isolated episode, but rather the result of office policies that encouraged unconstitutional behavior. In his efforts to prove that claim, Mr. Rudin will also seek a deposition from Michael F. Vecchione, a top prosecutor in the office and close associate of Mr. Hynes who has repeatedly been accused of misconduct.
Mr. Hynes’s office is now investigating more than 50 of its own murder convictions that have been called into question because of their connection to a rogue police detective, Louis Scarcella. The investigations come after federal judges who reviewed prosecutions from the office pointed to instances of prosecutorial misconduct.
The district attorney’s office ran the custody program from the early 1990s through at least 1997, according to the sworn testimony. Many of Mr. Scarcella’s convictions occurred during that period.
Mr. Collins was convicted of killing Abraham Pollack in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1995, based on the testimony of three witnesses. His conviction was tossed out following a successful postconviction claim in which he argued that prosecutors did not turn over evidence that one of the witnesses who testified against him had recanted his statement.
The judge presiding over Mr. Collins’s lawsuit, Frederic Block, said the facts showed that officers working on the case, Vincent Gerecitano and Jose. R. Hernandez, had pressured a heroin addict to implicate Mr. Collins, and that Mr. Vecchione had threatened the addict with prosecution and bodily harm unless he agreed to testify against Mr. Collins. Two other witnesses made similar accusations.
Judge Block is scheduled to hear oral arguments on whether Mr. Rudin can depose Mr. Hynes on June 12.