Bronx Juries: More Woe for the NYPD
The Huffington Post by Len Levitt - June 6, 2011
Long the bane of the NYPD, a Bronx jury spoke last week, raising the bourgeoning Ticketgate police scandal to a new level. The jury acquitted Bronx attorney Stephen LoPresti of drunken-driving charges -- a guy with three prior drunk-driving convictions -- because jurors did not believe the two arresting officers, who admitted fixing tickets in unrelated cases. Officer Harrington Marshall testified that he had asked a police union official to make two tickets of family members vanish. Officer Julissa Goris testified that she had asked her police union delegate to kill a ticket issued to her boyfriend's cousin. Also, when her mother received a ticket, Goris accompanied her to court, spoke to a sergeant, and her mother did not have to pay the fine. "The message is clear," said Adam D. Perlmutter, one LoPresti's defense lawyers. "Corruption won't be tolerated in the Bronx or anywhere." A defense attorney's natural bombast notwithstanding, in this instance Perlmutter seems to have gotten it right -- at least when it comes to fixing tickets. News reports say that up to 300 cops may be involved, including Patrolmen's Benevolent Association delegates and a trustee acting as middlemen. In addition, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association says fixing tickets is a wide-ranging and long-standing police courtesy and unstated job benefit. Nobody -- not Mayor Bloomberg who has called the scandal a "black eye" for the police department; not Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who has said virtually nothing; maybe not even Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, whose grand jury reportedly has been hearing testimony about ticket-fixing for more than a year -- knows where this is going and what will come out. Some have even suggested, perhaps over-dramatically, that Ticketgate approaches pre-Knapp Commission-era corruption and may warrant an independent commission. Ticketgate's main stage is the Bronx, where more than in any other borough, juries don't trust cops. And cops don't trust Bronx juries. For years, PBA attorneys have opted to have their cases heard by Bronx judges instead of Bronx juries. Most of these judges have been older white men, more sympathetic to cops than most Bronx citizens. Just such a judge acquitted police officer Stephen Sullivan for fatally shooting Eleanor Bumpers during an eviction in 1984. Such a judge acquitted off-duty officer Michael Meyer for fatally shooting an unarmed squeegee man who was soaping up his windshield in 1998. Such a judge acquitted Francis X. Livoti, accused of using a department-banned choke hold that led to the death of asthmatic Anthony Baez in 1994. Then there was the infamous shooting of unarmed Amadou Diallo, killed in a hail of 41 bullets, fired by four officers in 1999. The PBA was so fearful that these four officers would be tried by a Bronx jury (or nearly as bad, by a younger black, female judge, who was supposedly selected at random) that the union pulled off a remarkable piece of legal legerdemain. First, they arranged to move the trial to Albany. Then, the court's chief administrator, Jonathan Lippman -- now the state's chief judge -- handpicked a cop-friendly jurist to preside over the case. The officers were all acquitted. In her salad days, the New York Times columnist Gail Collins coined the phrase, "The Bronx curse," meaning that when something bad happens, it's always worse in the Bronx. Maybe that explains the phenomenon of Larry Davis. In 1986, the drug-dealing, 20-year-old Davis shot six cops, who police said had come to his sister's apartment to question him about the killing of four drug dealers. Davis escaped and led police on a 17-day manhunt. When he gave himself up after cops had cornered him in a Bronx housing project, crowds applauded him. When he pleaded self-defense, a Bronx jury acquitted him. District Attorney Johnson, too, is something of a uniquely Bronx product. Elected in 1988, he is currently the state's only African-American district attorney. Like many of his constituents, he has had issues with the police. Because he opposes the death penalty, some in law enforcement circles have viewed him as anti-cop. After the fatal shooting of Bronx Street Crime cop Kevin Gillespie in 1996, Gov. George Pataki took the extraordinary step of removing the case from Johnson's jurisdiction and appointing a special prosecutor. (Although former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau also opposes the death penalty, Pataki never took a case from him.) The issue became moot when Gillespie's alleged killer hanged himself in prison. Two years later, Police Commissioner Howard Safir told the New York Times that he had "no respect" for Johnson. "No. Not at all," he said to the writer, Jeffrey Goldberg. Safir later said that he was misquoted. More recently, to the horror of many in the department, Johnson prosecuted veteran detective Christopher Perino for perjury after a secretly recorded audio-tape caught him in a lie. A Bronx jury convicted him in 2009 and he was sentenced to four months in prison. All but forgotten is that after Bronx juries acquitted Larry Davis both of shooting the six cops and of killing the four drug dealers, Johnson continued to pursue him. In 1991, his office convicted Davis, who had changed his name to Adam Abdul Hakeem, of murdering another drug dealer, Ramon Vizcaino. The guilty verdict, said Johnson, "means that a very dangerous individual is going to be made to pay for his wanton acts... Because of the nature of his crime and the background of Adam Abdul Hakeem, the people intend to seek the maximum sentence." Davis got the max -- 25 years to life. He died in prison in 2008. At least for a moment, the Bronx curse was lifted.