Thursday, April 12, 2007

Judge Charles L. Brieant Overturns Conviction of Former Correction Officer Paul Cote.

A Great Judge Delivers, A Courageous Decision.

On Tuesday, April 3rd, United States Federal District Court Judge Charles L. Brieant affirmed what seasoned court watchers have known about him for many years as he, once again, summoned the courage and the wisdom with which he has graced the Westchester Community for some thirty-six years, handingdown a decision the like of which is all too seldom seen.

Paul Cote, former Westchester County Correction Officer, convicted by a jury on September 20, 2006, in Brieant’s Court, on a single-count indictment, charging violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 242, in the deprivation of Zoran Teodorovic’s right to liberty without due process of law, while acting under color of law. Mr. Cote, who had been tried and convicted of Assault in the Second Degree, in Westchester County Court, in July 2001, serving three months in jail, having granted the United States Attorney’s Office a waiver of the applicable five-year Statute of Limitations, had been once again tried for the same transaction, exposed in every Constitutional sense to Double Jeopardy, and convicted.

Cote’s prior trial, and conviction were hopefully, truly unknown to the federal jury. Nevertheless, he was being tried by the federal government based on the same set of facts, six years after the occurrence, and was found guilty. The incident, which took place at the Westchester County Jail October 10, 2000, involved a homeless, belligerent inmate, Zoran Teodorovic, a fellow correction officer, now Corrections Sergeant John Mark Reimer, and Cote. Despite the fact that the Defendant’s involvement did not occur until after Officer Reimer, responding to a punch in the face, had bear-hugged the inmate, swinging him through a six-foot radius arc, and slamming his head to the concrete floor of G-1 cellblock, causing massive cerebral injury, charges resulting from Teodorovic’s ultimate death, some 14 months later, were lodged against Cote, using Reimer as the chief Prosecution witness.

Charged with “striking, kicking, and stomping” the inmate, Cote had rushed to the aid of fellow officer Reimer, as per approved protocols and regulations. Reimer, however, had gone to DA Jeanine Pirro first, and, as so often has been the case, cut his deal with the Devil. At oral arguments pursuant to Mr. Cote’s appeal of his conviction under Federal Rules 29(c) and 33, the issue of the relationship between federal prosecutors, and the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office, specifically former ADA Robert Neary, was brought up by Defense Counsel Bennett Epstein, drawing a response from Assistant United States Attorney Cynthia Dunne that her office merely monitored the State proceedings. Epstein strongly suggested that there had been significant cooperation and choreography between the two Offices.

Under Rule 29, federal judges are granted the judge-ordered “ judgment of acquittal” replacing the former “directed verdict,” previously returned by the jury under directions from the judge. Coming directly from the judge, in this case Judge Charles L. Brieant, a finding for the Defendant under Rule 29 is an affirmative determi-nation that the Prosecution had failed to carry its burden of proof.

Rule 33, on the other hand, gives a trial court considerable discretion to set aside a jury verdict, that it deems a “miscarriage of justice,” and order a new trial. The language of the federal rule shows sensitivity to the historic role of the jury, speaking of the need by judges to avoid “wholly usurping” the jury’s responsibility of resolving conflicting evidence, and assessing the credibility of witnesses. The rule speaks of the need to find “exceptional circumstances” before a judge may “intrude upon the jury function.”

Having presided over the two-week trial, Judge Brieant concluded: “ The verdict was not fairly based on the evidence presented at trial, and was not in proper conformity with the Indictment. The Court also concludes, based on its direct observation of the entire trial, that the interests of Justice were not served by the verdict, and that if on appeal Defendant is deemed not entitled to a judgment of acquittal, in contrast to this Court’s view, then he is at least entitled to a new trial.”

Judge Brieant further ruled: “The motion for a judgment of acquittal under Rule 29(c) is granted. The motion for a new trial under Rule 33 is conditionally granted if the judgment of acquittal is reversed. The judgment is stayed pending Appellate finality.”

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