Via Dan Hull at What About Paris?, ProPublica has an exceptional story about the man behind the wrongful conviction of Jonathan Fleming, who was released after serving 24 years of a 25 to life sentence upon the revelation that the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office withheld Brady evidence proving he was in Orlando when the murder happened. That man was James Leeper.
Interviews with an array of current and former Brooklyn prosecutors, his adversaries in the defense bar, and at least one former Brooklyn judge have uniformly produced glowing testimonials to Leeper’s skill, compassion and integrity. People, even those with unflattering views of Leeper’s longtime boss, former District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, and the office he ran, find it close to impossible to accept the fact that Leeper knowingly hid vital evidence in a murder case.
“He was universally thought of as a model prosecutor,” said Dan Saunders, now a Queens Deputy Executive Assistant District Attorney, who once worked with Leeper in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. “You’ll hear that from everybody. He was a trustworthy and reliable guy. The kind of guy you want to entrust with the difficult work of being a government prosecutor. I hope people say something like that about me one day.”
And it goes on and on throughout Joaquin Sapien’s piece. Good guy, not one of those win-at-all-costs killers. Fleming wasn’t the first case related to Leeper that came back to court as a wrongful conviction. That would be Julio Acevedo’s case, where Leeper subsequently learned that his defense of duress was true when the guy who held the gun to Acevedo’s head admitted he forced him to kill. Leeper neglected to mention it to Acevedo’s lawyer.
The judge in Acevedo’s case, Anne Feldman, had doubts about the conviction.
“I suspect the truth lies somewhere between what you said and what the district attorney said,” Feldman told Acevedo in court.
She then sent him away for 20 years to life.
In Brooklyn, that whole beyond a reasonable doubt thing is for kids. So what if the judge had reasonable doubt? She took five years off the back end to make up for it. But Leeper?
There is no evidence Leeper was in any way sanctioned. Feldman, in releasing Acevedo, appears to have only dealt with the new evidence, and not the question of Leeper’s apparent failure.
He was a trustworthy guy. He was liked and respected on all three sides of the courtroom. Guys who are liked aren’t bad guys. Sure, Leeper was required by law and ethics to alert Acevedo’s lawyer to the new information that undermined the integrity of his conviction. And yeah, he didn’t. Not a word. But Leeper was reliable. Everybody said so. He was a piece of work like MIchael Vecchione. Of course, he was a good guy too, until he wasn’t.
“Anyone who knows Mike Vecchione, who has ever seen him in action, knows that he is a very, very principled lawyer,” [former Kings County District Attorney Charles] Hynes said.
Two “verys,” no waiting. Hynes had some issues in his office, which explains in part why Ken Thompson beat him twice in the race for Brooklyn D.A.
We have some gestalt need to attribute good qualities to people we like. We also refuse to believe negative qualities. The next-door neighbors of mass murderers regularly say “what a nice person” he was, and how they can’t believe he would do something like that.
The story includes some struggles Leeper had with booze, as if that’s something novel among prosecutors. Or criminal defense lawyers, for that matter. But there is no indication that it had anything to do with Fleming or Acevedo. It’s just background noise, offered to suggest a reason for Leeper’s demotion from “red zone” bureau chief to line prosecutor in homicide. After Fleming, however, Thompson had enough with his Hynes-era carry-over.
Three weeks ago, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, now run by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Thompson, announced that Leeper had been suspended. The office did not say why, and refused to answer any questions about Leeper’s career or his role in any possible misconduct.
So James Leeper, who had served in the office since 1987, had nowhere to go in the morning. He’s free to do whatever he wants. Fleming had nowhere to go for 24 years, but he wasn’t free to do much of anything. And Leeper was the good guy, as proved by his excellent reputation.
Lawyers for Fleming and Acevedo, and no doubt the many other defendants Leeper prosecuted during his career as a prosecutor, tried their hearts out for their clients, but lost. But there is nothing to indicate that they thought Leeper was dirty. They too thought he was a good guy, and so they too believed that he would do the right thing. He would play hardball, but not lowball. That was the deal.
Because the guys with good reputations don’t win by hiding the Brady. Except when they do.