When Eastern District Judge Dora Irizarry granted Jabbar Collins’ habeas petition, she slammed the prosecutor, Michael Vecchione, as well as Kings County District Attorney Joe Hynes.
Judge Irizarry called the office’s lack of contrition “sad,” “shameful” and “beyond disappointing.”
“I didn’t hear any kind of acknowledgment that things were done that should not have been done,” Irizarry said.
Joe Hynes, feeling particularly distressed by such a verbal whipping, backed up the guy he promoted to chief of rackets:
“Anyone who knows Mike Vecchione, who has ever seen him in action, knows that he is a very, very principled lawyer,” Hynes said.
Anyone? Maybe not anyone. But this is all old news. Nothing to see here.
This, however, is brand new, stemming from Jabbar Collins’ action for damages for the 16 years he spent in prison because of the very, very principled Vecchione. From the New York Times :
Judge Frederic Block made the comments during pretrial proceedings over a lawsuit filed by Jabbar Collins, who was exonerated of murder charges in June 2010 after a judge found that Mr. Hynes’s office relied on false testimony, coerced witnesses and suppressed evidence in the case. One prosecutor, Michael Vecchione, was found to be the driving force behind the case.
“I’m disturbed that Hynes praises Vecchione after what happened,” Judge Block said Friday in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. “Hynes hasn’t treated this seriously, has he?” the judge asked a lawyer for the city. “Name one thing that he has done in light of Mr. Vecchione’s aberration,” the judge continued.
While Judge Block “rebukes” Hynes and Vecchione, it’s troubling that he attributed Collins’ 34 years to life sentence to Vecchione’s “aberration.” According to the evidence amassed by Joel Rudin, Collins’ lawyer, this is anything but an aberration.
In the complaint, Mr. Rudin said the district attorney’s office regularly brought witnesses picked up on warrants to their office for interrogation, rather than directly to court.
The complaint also accused Mr. Vecchione of allowing subordinates to sign his name for him, and it cited a report from a handwriting expert who found that Mr. Vecchione’s signature on sworn affidavits in multiple cases did not match his actual signature.
Mr. Vecchione has been accused by defense lawyers and former colleagues of overstepping the bounds of legal propriety. One of his notable failures was the case against Roy Lindley DeVecchio, a former F.B.I. agent whose murder prosecution fell apart after it became apparent that Mr. Vecchione withheld information that seriously questioned the credibility of his star witness.
While it’s commendable that Judge Block, like Judge Irizarry before him, finds what happened here is disturbing, and DA Hynes’ failure to either acknowledge or deal with the monumental misconduct produced by his office, this suggests nonetheless that the standard judicial caveat, the one-bad-apple, isolated-incident excuse, remains in full force and effect.
To the extent that Hynes could try to cover up what happened here with a few well-placed words about his “very, very principled” prosecutor, the fact that a second federal judge has spoken out publicly about the egregious wrongdoing is important.
As every criminal defense lawyer who practices in federal court is painfully well aware, the reluctance of federal judges to think ill, no less speak ill, of prosecutors is legend. When faced with obvious impropriety, they will almost invariably chalk it up to some momentary lapse of judgment, an accident perhaps, that absolves the prosecutor of any malevolent intent. There he stands, an angel protecting an appreciative public, who made a silly mistake. Let’s just fix this little bitty problem and all is well. It’s like it never happened.
Should the defense lawyer question the court’s trivialization of the wrong, or absolution of the prosecutor, anticipate a facial challenge to the prove it, beyond any doubt whatsoever. You do not question a prosecutor’s honesty or integrity unless you’ve got video, plus the Pope as an eyewitness. Do so and expect payback, hard and swift. And that’s from the judge. Forget what the government will do to find some damn fine reason to make your life as miserable as possible.
And so prosecutors walk away, their halo intact.
Here, Vecchione got nailed and nailed good. Here the proof of wrongdoing is not only solid, but accepted by the court, now two federal judges. So Vecchione’s boss wants to pretend it never happened? Nobody pays Joe Hynes much heed anyway. He’s a bit, oh, political. While he ought to do a little something to back up the efficacy of his offices protection of rights, just so he isn’t embarrassed the next time he gets caught dead to rights on a Brady violation (since he doesn’t want to look particularly awful), Vecchione’s too high up on the food chain to throw under a bus.
So we’re left to federal judges to speak truth about what the Kings County District Attorneys office did to Jabbar Collins. And others.
This is not an abberation. And more importantly, there was no need to throw in the standard judicial caveat when ripping Hynes a new one for his failure to do anything to address what stinks in his office. Why offer this gratuitous backdoor? Why, in the face of systemic impropriety, make nice with the Brooklyn DA by tossing in the one-bad-apple excuse? Why?
Is there any real concern lurking behind the robes that Brady is a game to be played to test whether anybody’s watching, anybody cares? Does it bother anyone to have prosecutors sending out phony subpoenas and material witness warrants to harass, coerce and manipulate witnesses so that they won’t testify truthfully for the defense at trial. Doesn’t it concern a judge who spouts the “search for the truth” platitude that the government side, the ones whose job it is to “do justice” as opposed to win, are testing their mettle to see how much they can get away with?
This was no aberration, and as much as I applaud Judge Block’s confirming that the prosecutor did wrong and the DA did nothing about it, it’s never going to stop as long as each and every systemic instance of impropriety isn’t excused as an aberration. In a system that works, aberrations don’t happen. And when they happen over and over, they’re not aberrations. This was no aberration.