Thursday, January 29, 2009

Westchester Guardian/Jeff Deskovic.

Jeff Deskovic

Life’s Lessons From Exonerees

I was sitting at my computer about a week ago when I learned of the passing of Clyde Charles, and the story of his case, reached me. Upon reading the specifics, I was moved. Here are the details: Clyde served nearly two decades in Louisiana for rape before being proven innocent by DNA. Clyde was convicted based upon a misidentification. While the victim was still in the hospital, the police brought Charles in front of her, in handcuffs, and asked her if this was the man who raped her. She replied affirmatively. In addition, a lab analyst testified that two Caucasian hairs were consistent with those of the victim.

KBZE/KFRA News reported that his sister, Lois Hill, said the family pooled their financial resources, to begin helping their brother Clyde in two appeals of his case, both of which were lost in 1982 and 1987. In 1990 Hill and her sister Rochelle Abrams, sought to have DNA evidence tested in the case. However, Hill said that for years their requests were ignored, blocked or denied by the state. “The state and Terrebonne Parish never
once apologized publically or privately to Clyde for what they did, nor did they repay him for the injustice done against him,” Hill said. “Terrebonne Parish gave him $200,000 and then told him to go away,” Hill said.

On Jan. 7, 2009, after being free for only eight years, he passed away at his home. The Daily Comet reported that he entered prison healthy, but left mentally scarred and stricken with physical ailments including tuberculosis, diabetes and hepatitis. He was forced to undergo dialysis three times a week. According to an article by the Associated Press, Clyde Charles had a very tough life after his release from prison, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares, and terrible pain from his diabetes.

Barry Scheck, of the Innocence Project, said in a telephone interview last Tuesday, in early 2003, Charles was arrested on a charge that he had stabbed one of his other brothers, but was released on $100,000 bail for intensive drug rehabilitation. That case was continued indefinitely in a deal brokered with state prosecutors. “I wish I could tell you they lived happily ever after. But they didn’t,” Scheck said. KBZE News quoted Lois Hill as
saying, “This week, it’s about my brother, and all I can say is that a man set free after serving 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, on January 7, became truly free indeed,” Hill said.

“I have no regrets. Two weeks ago while visiting my brother at his home, while talking, Clyde looked at me and said, ‘Lois, I know what you did for me. I know you stood beside me when many people had fell along the way, and that made me feel real good. You can’t buy that kind of love.’ I have my brother’s love, and that is the best gift I have ever received,” Hill said.

His story brought to mind the sad story of another deceased exoneree, Ron Williamson, whose story I wrote about previously in e Guardian under the title “An Emotional Night At the Second Annual Innocence Project Gala Dinner.” Williamson served 11 years on death row before being proven innocent by DNA. At one point he came within 5 days of execution. His story is the subject of the book The Innocent Man by John Grisham. Of all of the recountings in the media about his life and his case, I liked the one published by the website Abolish The
Death Penalty, best, for the concise manner in which they reported things. They recounted that he was a high school baseball star, who was both a pitcher and a catcher, who was drafted in the second round by The Oakland A’s in 1971. After 6 years in the minor leagues, his career ended because of arm injuries. He returned to Oklahoma and worked at a sales job, but began to show signs of a mental illness that was eventually diagnosed as Bipolar Disorder.

The evidence against him, the authorities said, consisted of 17 hairs that matched those of Mr. Williamson and his co-defendant Mr. Fritz, and the account provided by the woman who said she had heard Mr. Williamson confess. A second jailhouse informer later stepped forward to buttress the case against Mr. Fritz. Williamson and Fritz were both cleared when the DNA not only did not match them, but also matched Glen Gore, who
was in prison for an unrelated crime. Williamson died of cirrhosis of the liver just 5 years after being released.

After he was exonerated and released in April 1999, here are the words that he said about his life, taken from the website, Care2: “I hope I go to neither heaven nor hell. I wish that at the time of my death that I could go to sleep and never wake up and never have a bad dream. Eternal rest, like you’ve seen on some tombstones, that’s what I hope for.

Because I don’t want to go through the Judgment. I don’t want anybody judging me again. ... I asked myself what was the reason for my birth when I was on death row, if I was going to have to go through all that. What was even the reason for my birth? I almost cursed my mother and dad -- it was so bad -- for putting me on this earth. If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t be born.”

After recalling Ron, my mind then raced toward the story of exonerated Stephan Cowans, who died at 37 after being free for only 3 1/2 years. Although I recalled some generalities about him and his case, the particulars had grown a little grey. Cowans served six and a half years in a Massachusetts prison for the shooting of a police officer before he was proven innocent.

The facts of his case are taken from The Innocence Project’s website:

“On May 30, 1997, an officer of the Boston Police Department was shot twice with his own service weapon in the backyard of a house in Jamaica Plain following a short struggle with an unknown assailant.

The assailant fired an additional shot at an individual who was standing in the window of a second floor bedroom. The assailant ran from the
scene, leaving the baseball hat he was wearing. He forcibly entered a nearby home, where he stopped to drink from a glass of water. The assailant
then fired, leaving both the gun and the sweatshirt he had been wearing. Approximately two weeks later, the injured police officer identified
Stephan Cowans from a photo array composed of eight photographs.

On July 2, 1997, the officer attended a lineup and once again singled out Cowans as the man who had shot him. On that same day the individual who had been watching from his second floor bedroom window also identified Cowans as the assailant. The family who had been present in the home that the assailant had forcibly entered, and who had spent the most time with the assailant, did not identify Mr. Cowans from the lineup. At trial, the Commonwealth used these identifications to convict Cowans. The Commonwealth also relied upon a latent fingerprint that had been found on the glass mug used by the assailant. Prosecutors presented expert testimony asserting that the latent fingerprint matched Cowans’s left thumb print.

On May 22, 2003, the Suffolk Superior Court issued an order approving a stipulation - entered into between the Innocence Project, Cowans’ counsel, and the Commonwealth - for the release of the glass mug, swabs taken from the mug, a baseball hat, and the white sweatshirt for the
purposes of DNA testing. The tests revealed conclusive results. The primary profile located on the baseball hat matched the profile located on the
swab taken from the rim of the glass mug used by the perpetrator. Stephan Cowans was excluded as the source of the DNA on these items. In January, 2004, the Commonwealth requested that the white sweatshirt worn by the assailant also be submitted for DNA testing. The results revealed the same profile found on the baseball hat and the swab of the glass mug, and once again did not match the DNA profile of Cowans. After reviewing the DNA test results, the Suffolk County District Attorney re-analyzed the fingerprint that had been used to convict Cowans. This re-examination showed that the fingerprint did not actually belong to Cowans.

After being free for only 3 1/2 years, Stephan Cowans was found dead in his home, shot to death, apparently from somebody who was trying to rob him for a part of his well known 3.2 million dollar award, on October 26, 2007.” As The Boston Phoenix wrote, Stephan Cowans never learned how, or why, he came to be blamed for the nonfatal shooting of Boston police officer Gregory Gallagher in 1997. Now, the Boston Phoenix has uncovered substantial new information about the Cowans case. These revelations are troubling, as they suggest that key members of the Boston Police Department (BPD) knew that Cowans was innocent, even as they forged the case to prosecute him. The Phoenix has reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, including contents of the original investigative file, and interviewed many sources close to the case. For a variety of reasons, certain case materials, physical evidence, and potential witnesses were not available. Nonetheless, the picture that has emerged is one in which some BPD officers appear to have perjured themselves, and/or concealed evidence, hid what they knew, and even falsified documents. Officers may
have been aware of Cowans’ innocence, some of them may even have known who the real shooter was, and for whatever reason, worked to protect him.

Lessons Learned

I am by nature empathetic, and when I read or hear of information about exonerees, since I, too, experienced a wrongful conviction, I tend to
be particularly sensitive. What happens is that I remember my own ordeal and I imagine another person experiencing it. In this instance, because these stories involve the added element of death after a relatively short amount of time free post exoneration, it is particularly painful. At the same time, reflecting on other’s lives can sometimes reveal profound things, and/or knock down a mental wall that is barricading one from understanding the simplest of things. At this time I would like to honor the above-mentioned men by recounting the life lessons that their lives convey. Clyde Charles had requests for DNA blocked and denied. That is inexcusable. Had he been granted the testing earlier more of his life
span could have been spent free. Everybody should have the right to DNA testing.

The police allowing the victim to view Charles while he was handcuffed was obviously an influencing factor. It is not that the victim purposely
misidentified him; it is that she most likely placed confidence in the police. After all, why would they bring him to her in handcuffs if he wasn’t the one? Police and other law enforcement agents should never show a victim a suspect while he is handcuffed.

The psychological effect of wrongful convictions has been studied by psychologists in Canada. It often causes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The experience was found by psychologists to be similar to that of soldiers returning home from war. Charles had PTSD. All exonerees should be provided with free mental health treatment.

Receiving an apology from the state, while in many ways being empty and inadequate, has been found by psychologists to be important to many exonerees. Clyde Charles went to his grave never having received one. Local governments should automatically apologize whenever anyone has been released because they were found innocent. Another lesson that both Charles’ life and the life of Ron Williamson teach is that often the substandard medical care that prisoners experience can have the effect of shortening their lives. We owe it to both of them to oppose such
appalling medical treatment in prisons for all prisoners, whether innocent or guilty. Someone once said words to the effect that the test of a country lies in how it treats its prisoners. On this front, as a country, we are currently failing.

The life of Stephan Cowans illustrates that contrary to popularly held beliefs, some police do work to wrongfully convict people even when they know that the person is innocent. They do resort to tactics such as committing perjury, concealing evidence, falsifying documents, and engaging in conspiracy with similar officers, and turning of a blind eye by of-ficers not involved, ostensibly under the banner of the blue wall of silence.

Accordingly, police should be viewed by government officials, jurors, and even everyday citizens, as being no more or less credible than any other
person in any other walk of life. They are not, ipso facto because of their jobs, somehow more truthful or trustworthy. Another lesson from this is that honest police officers should expose corrupt ones. Had any brave officers stepped forward, they could have prevented Cowans’ wrongful convictions and/or the full length of time he spent in prison. Still one other theme is that prosecutors should not be afraid to rerun fingerprint or other tests, as the DA in his case did. What’s to lose? On that score, I applaud the DA. Beyond lessons involving wrongful convictions, I believe that their lives give us some general thoughts. The things I will now share come from them, as well my own life experience.

Life is both precious and fragile. It is here one moment, and gone the next. Living a long time till we are old and have grandchildren is not promised to any of us. Make the most out of each moment. Appreciate the small things in life that most of us tend to overlook. Enjoy the sensation of taking in fresh air instead of having limited opportunities. Appreciate the feel of being able to stand in the sun, or be outside during a warm summer night without having to worry that someone will tell you that you have to go inside. Savor being able to have a choice as to what
you eat as opposed to having something hastily, without any care thrown in front of you, which you either eat or not. Be glad that you can travel, even if it is on public transportation to limited places that your budget can afford as opposed to being with a facility and without some sort of tracking or oversight.

With the exception of some neighborhoods and incidents, violence and assaults do not constantly hang as an imminent threat. Appreciate your friends, and even if you do not currently have any, appreciate the fact that you have the ability to make them. Enjoy the simple pleasure of talking to someone of the opposite sex.

The people who extend themselves to you to help you in your time of need, by way of their actions and sacrifice, are the people that really and truly love you. Try to rise above the worst things that have happened in your life, and reach a level of peace within you. Your life, no matter what it’s realities or hardships and difficulties, is, in most instances, better than being imprisoned for something you didn’t do. It would be better to live in a garbage dumpster or a shelter than to have the roof of a prison cell over your head.

Avoid putting off things that you would like to do “someday” and instead ask yourself, “If I was given 6 months to live, what would I do?” Make a list, and then go out and do it.

Try to turn your life into what you want it to be. Conceptualize it, look for every conceivable angle to make it happen, and then go for it, all the while looking for unforeseen opportunities to bring you closer.

Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box or try angles that others have not tried before. It is our response during our most trying times that truly defines who we are; when we choose to dip into our well of strength in reserve or assume a metaphorical fetal position and fold. When it comes to passions, causes, and things we believe in, NEVER GIVE UP.

This article is dedicated to the memories of Clyde Charles, Ron Williamson, and Stephan Cowans, as well as all of the people who helped them during their period of wrongful incarceration, in obtaining their freedom, and in their short and difficult lives thereafter.


Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

We Need Health Care Reform

Westchester citizens are responding to the call for change from the Obama administration by hosting health care community discussions and offering their own personal ideas for reform. Led by Senator Tom Daschle, the new head of the Department of Health and Human Services, the purpose of these discussions is to gather information from the public.

Daschle said, “We have invited people from all over the country to participate in these discussions. We want people to share with us what
idea they have on how to improve the system. The idea is to put together the best list of proposals together – ideas from prevention to hospital care to chronic care management.

If we’re going to do this right, it’s going to mean that we’re going to have to involve the American people. We have to involve people who
have personal stories to tell, who have ideas to share, who have real experiences that they can relate to.”

Daschle believes that this approach is “the essence of good legislating”. On Friday, January 16, a group of Westchester residents braved the
near-zero temperatures to gather at the Dragonfly Café in Pleasantville to share their ideas for reform to the health care system. The moderator of the Pleasantville discussion, Dr. Susan Rubin, voiced her encouragement for local residents to attend, stating, “I know I’m not alone in believing that our healthcare system is not working as well as it could be to create better health. Now is the time to stop sitting on the sidelines and do something about it”.

As Rubin noted in her invitation to this event, “When our government talks about healthcare, they are generally referring to health insurance.
The term healthcare system is really a system of medical care. How can we make it more about caring for our health?”

The Obama/Biden “transition project” outlined their goals for these discussions:

1. Engage in discussions with your friends and neighbors about health care reform and draft a group submission with your findings and
conclusions. This will help the Transition Health Policy Team flesh out key issues around health care and give the Team fresh ideas about the
best ways to promote the President-elect and Vice President-elect’s vision of quality, affordable health care for all Americans.

2. Develop your group submission to the Transition Health Policy Team through a process that respects, empowers, and engages all attendees.

3. Identify particularly poignant stories about health care from participants that can be used to help emphasize the need for health care reform in our country.

The attendees at the Dragonfly Café were more than willing to share their views and stories to improve our healthcare system. Ten area residents attended, a mix of mothers who are involved in their local PTA wellness committees, self-employed individuals, small business owners, alternative health care providers, and seniors.

One participant set the tone up front by noting, “Insurance policies govern our personal health decisions. We do what the insurance companies tell us we are allowed to do, rather than what we want to do for our own health and our own bodies”.

The participants agreed that their insurance companies directed them to doctors and providers based on financial decisions, rather than
on what would work best for their health. One mother noted that she was put through a variety of useless medical tests and procedures
to diagnose her headaches which were eventually determined to be the result of her diet. “No one ever stopped to ask me what I ate and
drank,” she noted frustratingly.

The attendees agreed that the insurance companies “don’t pay for doctors to sit down and talk to you to see what the problem might be”.
The participants felt that doctors were pressured to do medical tests to get any payments from the insurance companies, rather than being
paid for their time with patients. Another mother voiced her frustration with the limited choice of the types of care that insurance companies offer, especially in the areas of alternative medicine. “I suffered from a problem with my rotator cuff and couldn’t move my arm.

I went to a doctor for treatments for months with no success,” this mother told the group. “Finally I heard of an acupuncturist who was highly recommended, but my insurance company would not pay for this type of treatment. I had to pay out-ofpocket myself to go to her. But one session with her did the trick!” The mom took off her jacket and swung her arm around in the air to show us the improvement. “Now why couldn’t my insurance pay for this treatment?” she asked.

The group agreed that one of the major issues with our health care system is access. One senior noted “The real problem is access; access to
alternative care. Access to any care at all because you don’t have insurance. Access to care because there are no doctors or hospitals”.

All of the participants agreed that we are fortunate to have an abundance of doctors and hospitals and other health care providers in Westchester, an advantage that many parts of the country, and even areas of upstate New York, do not have. As one participant noted at this
discussion, “How can we talk about health care in this country when we have parts of this country where there are no doctors?” The group recommended a program similar to the Peace Corps and Teach for America to encourage medical providers to offer their services in underprivileged areas of our country, a Medical Peace Corps.

They suggested forgiving medical school student loans to encourage participation in this program. Listening to the stories at the discussion, one participant noted, “We need a new definition of prevention. We need to outline all stages of prevention in life”. The group recommended education to encourage individuals to take charge of their own health and to prevent health problems. “We need to show how food, lifestyle, and environment affect health, and, educate people as to how to eat properly,” Dr. Rubin noted. “Our current system does nothing to educate people and does not encourage prevention,” she said.

One participant suggested making our health insurance programs similar to auto insurance, stating, “Why don’t health insurance companies
embrace the approach of the auto insurance companies? Why don’t we reward individuals who take proper care of themselves and charge more for those who smoke or don’t eat properly?”

The group discussed Governor Paterson’s proposed tax on soda but agreed that it did not go far enough since it did not cover diet sodas and
sports drinks, both equally popular with growing children and teenagers. “We need to subsidize healthy foods,” one mother stressed. “We
need to encourage healthy eating, especially for our children.” One frustration voiced by the self-employed individuals and the business owners was the high cost of their insurance and the high taxes they pay to subsidize the health insurance of government employees.

One mother, a self-employed worker, noted “The Blind Brook School District employees only contribute 15% of the cost of their medical insurance. They only pay in one year what I pay in a month for insurance!” The participants agreed that the current tax system had to change to allow small business owners and self-employed individuals to deduct the cost of their health insurance in full to be equal to government and school district employees who receive their subsidized benefits tax-free. “We have a system of double-jeopardy,”
one participant noted. “Those of us who pay for our own insurance pay twice. Once for ourselves, and again in taxes for government
workers’ insurance”.

Several mothers noted their frustration with the current privacy laws affecting family members of emancipated children who suffer from mental illnesses. “I cannot obtain medical information on my own daughter,” one mother said. “She’s over 18 so she’s an adult in the eyes
of the law and her medical information is governed by HIPPA laws.”

Family members told of instances where they could not locate which hospital their loved one was admitted to in an emergency because the
HIPPA laws prevented the hospital from releasing the information. Several participants expressed their frustration with the health care providers themselves, many of whom dismissed their knowledge of the patient or themselves. As one mother noted, “No one ever trusted
my own knowledge of my own body.” This reporter revealed to the group my own experiences with my elderly mother who suffers from
dementia, and how many providers never looked at the Alzheimer’s alert bracelet my mother wears with all of her medial and my contact
information, opting instead to quiz her directly for information that she is incapable of providing due to her condition! The group agreed that
providers needed more instruction on how to care for patients and how to involve and trust the entire family in the patient’s care.

Another frustration voiced by one participant is how the providers themselves are often the ones blocking access to care. A mother, an advocate for health care access for those who have no insurance, noted that Port Chester schools have an “Open Door Program” where medical providers come into the schools directly to provide care and health education to the uninsured.

“Port Chester even has dentists who come in on a regular basis. West Greenwich has many poor individuals similar to Port Chester but the
Greenwich schools are not allowed to offer the same program. Greenwich Hospital will not allow any of their providers to bring anyone into
the local schools to offer care to the children who are uninsured.” Dr. Rubin noted that she is currently working with Northern Westchester
Hospital to offer a “Healthy Kids Westchester” program in local schools. The group agreed that all kids are at risk for poor health based
on their diets and lack of regular physical activity. One mother asked, “We have a DARE program in our schools to prevent drug use, why don’t we have a similar program for fitness?”

The group suggested that President Obama resurrect the fitness program inaugurated by President Kennedy. “We have a young, healthy
President now with two young children,” one mother noted. “He could set an example for the kids in our schools by showing them how to
exercise regularly and take care of themselves.”

Older participants in the group shared their stories on President Kennedy’s “Presidential Fitness Program” in their schools and reminisced about the calisthenics they had to do as part of the exercise routines! The group did agree that President Obama could set a similar example for the nation and hoped more individuals would already be encouraged to quit smoking along with him.

One concern voiced by several members of the group involved how the Health Care Community Discussions have been Shanghaied by
the pharmaceutical industry who are hosting many of these discussions themselves with their own employees to skew the results to the
new administration.

The New York Times revealed last month, “Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the main lobby for insurance companies, said the group was ‘mobilizing our grass-roots coalitions and encouraging industry employees’ to participate in meetings”. The Times also uncovered one of the health insurance industry’s goals to galvanize members of its Coalition for Medicare Choices, a group of 750,000 beneficiaries who like their private Medicare Advantage plans.

According to the Times, the health insurance industry is using scare tactics, “The industry-sponsored coalition recently told Medicare recipients that if the cuts occurred, ‘millions of seniors could see their benefits reduced, face higher out-of-pocket costs or lose their Medicare
Advantage coverage entirely’.” The Pleasantville participants were concerned that the results of these deep-pocket groups would overshadow the grassroots efforts of ordinary citizens.

The Obama/Biden team has clearly noted, however, that they are “committed to health care reform that comes from the ground up” and
specifically asked for these community discussions to gather “particularly poignant stories about health care from participants that can be used to help emphasize the need for health care reform in our country”. The new administration hopes that these stories will be an effective weapon to challenge the special interest groups.

The Obama-Biden plan for health care reform states that its objective is “To make health insurance work for people and businesses, not just insurance and drug companies”.

All of the views of the Pleasantville group, along with their recommendations, will be forwarded to Secretary Daschle and the Obama/Biden transition team. Information concerning these discussions can be found on the Obama/Biden transition team website,
www.change.gov.

Additional information on the Obama-Biden health care reform plan can be found on the White House website,
www.whitehouse.gov. The new administration is encouraging citizen participation through its Office of Public Liaison. Any local resident who wishes to have their views on health care reform heard can do so by submitting them to this office through the White House web site.

Citizen involvement for health care reform does not end with the community discussions. Any proposals to reform our laws will need
to be approved by Congress. The pharmaceutical and insurance companies are already gathering their lobbyists to fight any changes to the
existing system.

Area residents need to make sure their opinions are equally heard by contacting their local Congressional representatives. Local advocates are
also gearing up in response. As Dr. Rubin reassured the Guardian, “I think it’s important we do more of these discussions. We need to keep
getting our voices heard”.

THE OBAMA-BIDEN HEALTH CARE REFORM PLAN

On health care reform, the American people are too often offered two extremes -- government-run health care with higher taxes or letting the insurance companies operate without rules. President Obama and Vice President Biden believe both of these extremes are wrong, and that’s why they’ve proposed a plan that strengthens employer coverage, makes insurance companies accountable and ensures patient choice of doctor and care without government interference.

The Obama-Biden plan provides affordable, accessible health care for all Americans, builds on the existing health care system, and uses existing providers, doctors, and plans. Under the Obama-Biden plan, patients will be able to make health care decisions with their doctors, instead of being blocked by insurance company bureaucrats.

Under the plan, if you like your current health insurance, nothing changes, except your costs will go down by as much as $2,500 per year. If you don’t have health insurance, you will have a choice of new, affordable health insurance options.

Make Health Insurance Work for People and Businesses -- Not Just Insurance and Drug Companies.

• Require insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions so all Americans regardless of their health status or history can get comprehensive benefits at fair and stable premiums.

• Create a new Small Business Health Tax Credit to help small businesses provide affordable health insurance to their employees.

• Lower costs for businesses by covering a portion of the catastrophic health costs they pay in return for lower premiums for employees.

• Prevent insurers from overcharging doctors for their malpractice insurance and invest in proven strategies to reduce preventable medical errors.


• Make employer contributions more fair by requiring large employers that do not offer coverage or make a meaningful contribution to the cost of quality health coverage for their employees to contribute a percentage of payroll toward the costs of their employees' health care.

• Establish a National Health Insurance Exchange with a range of private insurance options as well as a new public plan based on benefits available to members of Congress that will allow individuals and small businesses to buy affordable health coverage.

• Ensure everyone who needs it will receive a tax credit for their premiums.

Reduce Costs and Save a Typical American Family up to $2,500 as reforms phase in:

• Lower drug costs by allowing the importation of safe medicines from other developed countries, increasing the use of generic drugs in public programs, and taking on drug companies that block cheaper generic medicines from the market.

• Require hospitals to collect and report health care cost and quality data.


• Reduce the costs of catastrophic illnesses for employers and their employees.

• Reform the insurance market to increase competition by taking on anti-competitive activity that drives up prices without improving quality of care.

The Obama-Biden plan will promote public health. It will require coverage of preventive services, including cancer screenings, and increase state and local preparedness for terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

A Commitment to Fiscal Responsibility: Barack Obama will pay for his $50 - $65 billion health care reform effort by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for Americans earning more than $250,000 per year and retaining the estate tax at its 2009 level.



Westchester Guardian/Dr. Martin Luther King Day/Tony Castro.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Tony Castro Co-Sponsors Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr. Birthday Breakfast Celebration
Joins With Reverends Van Leu of Mount Vernon and
Crumpton Of Tuckahoe In Sharing, Caring, and Prayer


Last Monday morning, January 19th, The Guardian was present when, on the 80th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, some 130 residents of Mount Vernon joined Tony Castro and Reverend Van Leu of Mount Vernon’s Centennial Zion Church, as well as Reverend Crumpton, of Tuckahoe, for a breakfast under the tent in honor of the life and works of the martyred civil rights leader and advocate for non-violent protest.

Castro told the crowd, who had gathered despite 20-degree temperatures and snow-covered sidewalks, “On April 16, 1963, an American civil rights leader whose 80th birthday we celebrate today, wrote a letter from the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama.” Castro explained, "Imprisoned for his part in a non-violent protest, Dr. King patiently explained why his movement for justice simply could not wait, despite
the urgings of others.”

Referring to the inauguration which would follow on Tuesday in Washington, Castro said, “Tomorrow, America fulfills Dr. King’s dream of a nation rising up and living out the true meaning of its creed, ‘We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident, That All Men Are Created Equal.’”

He went on, “Tomorrow our president will be a man judged and chosen not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. Tomorrow the age-old barriers will fall Yet, tomorrow the struggle for social justice and civil rights goes on, even in the streets and courtrooms of this city and this county.” His reference was a clear reminder that people of color, Blacks, Latinos, and others for whom
Dr. King had worked so long, continue to be victimized by crime and violence in greater numbers in the streets of Mount Vernon and Yonkers, and often re-victimized in courts throughout the County.

Reverend Van Leu and Reverend Crumpton each made the point, with impassioned prayer and declarations, that although there was great reason to be gratified with the progress we had made as a nation, as exemplified by the election of Barack Obama, still there was much to be accomplished in the day-to-day existence of hard-working Black and Latino families with respect to treatment by government, and society generally. They emphasized the need to remain vigilant in the continuing struggle for human rights and dignity.

Interviewed by The Guardian, following the breakfast event, Tony Castro said, “There was a general feeling on the part of those who attended, of gratitude, accomplishment and hope. People were grateful that Dr. King’s dream was fulfilled in the election of an African-American president and, furthermore, that it happened in their lifetime.”

Asked how he would characterize the feelings of those with whom he spoke, pausing momentarily, Castro observed, “Despite all of the euphoria regarding the momentous and historic event, most acknowledged that much remains to be done, particularly in the area of social justice.

They expressed hope that the change promised to the nation by Barack Obama would be felt here in Westchester County, and that there would be greater respect for, and enforcement of, civil rights by those in a position to uphold and enforce the law.”

Westchester Guardian/The Advocate.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Advocate
Richard Blassberg

A Day Like No Other

We were up at 3am last Tuesday morning, determined to witness, and record, a remarkable and unique moment in American history, the
Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American so designated. We would be catching the Amtrak 6am Acela-Express out of Penn Station in Manhattan for scheduled arrival in Union Station, Washington, D.C. at 8:45am, with stops in Newark, Trenton,
Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore in between.


Seats were not pre-assigned, though only a limited number were available shortly after Obama’s election day triumph. My fare, $399
round trip, had been a most generous birthday present from a friend, who accompanied me, on my historic pilgrimage. I hadn’t been to
Washington in many years.


Shortly after we had taken our seats, an older gentlemen, well-dressed and accompanied by a boy about 11 or 12, took seats on the
opposite side of the aisle, one row ahead of us. It was Dan Rather and his grandson.


People seated directly ahead of him, and a young executive-type behind him, engaged Rather in conversation, and, in a brief phototaking
episode. We refrained out of respect for his privacy, though he had been very gracious with his neighbors. Once debarked at Union Station, however, I did take a picture of the television icon and his grandson in the company of two apparent aides who had also been on the train.

Upon walk-ing out of Union Station, we could see the Capitol in the not-too-far-off distance, and began walking toward it. As we emerged,
we were greeted by a circus of street vendors, some with elaborate trunks, others with easels display-ing their wares; Obama t-shirts, hats, calendars, buttons, you name it.


We determined that we would purchase whatever souvenirs we had promised upon returning to the train, rather than carrying them around all day, in the less-than-20˚ cold. Our train had been briefly stalled by some mechanical issue just short of our destination, causing us to arrive about 9:15, which meant we had a little less than three hours to find our way with, and into, the masses who were not one of the 240,000 with tickets to watch the swearing-in ceremony in the flesh.

No matter, there would be huge television screens, like at the ballpark, with great speakers when we reached the area out back behind the Washington Monument, below the Capitol, where perhaps a million and a half more, like us, would be gathering to watch and listen.

In our wanderings through the City of Washington, D.C., we would meet and chat with people from all over our great country, and the world. My friend would manage to be interviewed by a reporter from a Colombian radio station, complete with an English-to- Spanish translator.

Among the dozens of visitors we would strike up conversation with was a retired New York City transit worker, a Vietnam War veteran,
a giant of a man originally from South Carolina, now living in Peekskill, N.Y., named James Johnson and his nephew Jacob McKay, about 15, from Maryland.


Mr. Johnson was very familiar with The Guardian, and happily paused for a photo that I promised to include in our article. Yes, it was cold, and there was a lot of walking to do, if you weren’t one of the lucky ones. But, nobody seemed to mind; the mood was happy, festive, the people were grateful to witness and be a part of something wonderful, something historically significant; something we would remember for the rest of our lives.

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a
short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.”


“As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington, whisper through the ages.”

“For as much as government can do, and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this
nation relies.”


“This is the source of our confidence, the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

“America: In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words: with hope and virtue, let us brave, once more, the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that, when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back, nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon, and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of Freedom, and delivered it safely to future generations.”

“The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

“And, so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father
was born, know that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity. And
that we are ready to lead once more.”


“We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week, or last month, or last year.”

“Let it be told to a future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the City and the Country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.

“We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waiver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat
you.”


Westchester Guardian/Larry Schwartz/In Our Opinion/Our Readers Respond.

Thursday, January 29, 2009.

In Our Opinion...

Let Us Pray For Larry And
The People Of New York State


There can be little doubt that Andy Spano will not be running for a fourth stint as Westchester County Executive come November. Andy would be the first to acknowledge that before his Svengali, Larry Schwartz, came into his life, from Suffolk County, he couldn’t get elected dogcatcher. In fact, he once intimated that he had lost 11 elections in a row.

Having announced his resignation from his position as Deputy County Executive, effective February 2nd, in order to accept the position of First Deputy Secretary to Governor David Paterson, Larry Schwartz has made a far more compelling statement about Andy’s political future than about his own.

Over the past two and a half years, Mr. Schwartz has been the subject of any number of articles in The Guardian. And those who have read our publication, with even moderate frequency, will recall that we suggested his resignation, or dismissal, on more than one occasion. Those suggestions were never personal, despite the fact that he made it clear he viewed them that way.

We never took issue with Mr. Schwartz when he told slow-moving, elderly drivers in front of him that he was “the most powerful person in County government.” We merely took issue with his legendary heavy-handedness, his rigging and fixing of elections, even including judgeships, his participation in fraudulent schemes such as the one involving then-County Clerk Len Spano, his son, State Sen. Nick Spano, a County police officer in the pistol permit unit as well as Commissioner Tom Belfiore and a $100,000 grant to that unit that was, instead, used to provide a personal chauffer for Len Spano.

We will always wonder if the .357 Magnum that killed New York City Police Officer Daniel Enchautegui in the hands of Steven Armento might have been retrieved from Armento’s deceased father’s home had the grant to the Pistol Unit not been diverted.

We are not going to be heard singing “We hate to see you go, we hate to see you go, we hope to heck you never... .”

We will simply observe that Mr. Schwartz was highly competent, tireless worker whose energies and intelligence would have been more beneficially enjoyed by the public he was employed to serve had it not been for his power-lust and deadly vindictiveness. For his own sake, and the well-being of the People of New York State, we sincerely wish Mr. Schwartz well in his new endeavor, and pray for his ability, and willingness, to respond to his “better angels”, more often than not, in Albany.

Amen.

Our Readers Respond....

Re: Paul Cote


Dear Editor:

The U.S. court system never ceases to amaze me. How the guilty and dangerous can be acquitted, and the righteous and harmless can get convicted, all based on technicalities and the interplay of words, is simply fascinating!

It is no wonder Americans are progressively losing respect for their court system. The case of Paul Cote is no exception. I am yet to understand how the case of two thieves smearing the blue uniforms that they swore to uplift as police officers (and the uniforms of all the other valiant heroes that protect our society on a daily basis, for that matter) by performing criminal activities robbing drug dealers (the Acosta case), compares, and sets a precedent, to the case of a brave man who wore his uniform with the respect it deserves, loving son, father and husband, who risked his life for twelve years as a correction officer, fulfilling his duty with an exemplary conduct both at work and in the
society he contributed to protect. I simply do not see the connection.


Mr. Cote is in this predicament due to a very unfortunate incident. A very unfortunate incident which occurred while attempting to defend a fellow officer while feeling threatened for his life and the life of the other officers, hence responding under a fight or fly mental defense
mechanism (with all its physical and psycho-social influences know to science). An unfortunate incident which very murky circumstances were never clarified under the court of law and which involved other officers who under a worse set of circumstances (being appointed as the ones causing the most and the most dangerous bodily injuries on the out of control, mentally ill, obviously dangerous inmate) were, somehow, protected and absolved of responsibility.


Incident which conviction was overturned by a righteous judge of this court system, the late Honorable Judge Brieant, whose expertise after serving in this court system for 37 years and decision were deemed insignificant. Unfortunate incident indeed, which exposed so many wrongdoings in our society and court system!

Despite the flaws of this amazing court system, being manipulated by very imperfect, ill-intended human beings, I still have faith in justice. I am confident that the very progressive Honorable Judge Karas will be able to see clearly and divide the intent of man’s heart and acknowledge
all of Mr. Cote’s losses, for merely responding to the call of duty, and the need of a fellow officer under attack, and the very unfortunate incident resulting from this.


Mrs. Prado, Mount Vernon


Re: Paul Cote

Dear Editor:


With reference to the articles “First Amendment Retaliation at Contaminated State And Federal Prosecutions” published on Jan. 8, 2009 and “Framed Former County Correction Officer Remanded To Jail, Awaiting Sentencing” published on Jan. 15, 2009, both regarding Westchester
County Correction Officer Paul Cote, I would like to give my support for this man and his family. In reading the wonderfully detailed reports of the situation, I found myself wondering, “How much more can this family endure?” The sincerity and honesty of the writer prompted me to write this letter.


Lucy Uomoleale
Mount Vernon


Re: Paul Cote

Dear Editor:


I am writing in response to your article dated 1/8/09 entitled, “First Amendment Retaliation that Contaminated State And Federal Prosecutions”. I feel your article addresses pertinent information that should deeply be considered in cases such as Paul Cote. This, unlike
many cases, shows a course of events that ultimately leads to horrific results for such parties involved and their families.


The details brought out in your article show unfortunate acts that took place while appropriate protocol was followed. Your article shows that there is more to this conviction than meets the eye. Implicating and framing a person should never be tolerated as it can destroy the lives of many people.

I applaud Mr. Blassberg for stating necessary facts that require reflection to this case. Hopefully it will help to put an end to this very long hardship for Paul Cote who has paid for this in every way possible.

Carol Del Guidice
Mahopac


A Weakly Opinion

Dear Editor:


I found Ioanna Burgos’ recent article in The Guardian depressing since I’m not in favor of that increase here. I’m not Latin or Mexican, so my immigrant views may be quite unpopular. I’d want more Asian, Italian, or possibly Greek, people here instead. They could be more respectful and friendly and more open to “our” language.

I strongly dislike Latino/Mexican men.

A Weekly Reader


Westchester Guardian/The Court Report.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Court Report
By Richard Blassberg

Harrison Police Crack Brutal Home Invasion Case

Prior to their arraignment in Harrison Town Court at noon on Thursday, Jan. 22, before Judge Ronald Bianci, the six perpetrators involved in a violent home invasion robbery at 209 Union Avenue in Harrison, Wednesday, September 3, 2008, between 7:10-7:30pm, were the subject of a press conference at Harrison Police Headquarters two hours earlier. Their victims had been William and Freida Schwartz, 75 and 73 years old,
respectively, a husband and wife, together with a caretaker, who had been brutalized and seriously injured; their heads slammed on their garage floor
before parting with cash, jewelery and their late-model Mercedes-Benz.


Harrison Police Captain Anthony Marraccini told reporters, “It was a very difficult case.” He then said, reassuringly, “But we got them all.” Marraccini, without specifying, then said, “They were involved in other crimes in other jurisdictions.”

Police Chief Dave Hall took over the microphone, declaring, “It’s a great day for the Harrison Police Department and all of the other agencies involved.” He went on, “The investigation was headed by Captain Marraccini, and involved the Bronx NYPD Robbery Squad, Steve Vandervelden, of the DA’s Of-fice, and the New York State Police, as well as Harrison officers Olson and Lucas and numerous other detectives and officers
‘bulldogging’ it.”

Vandervelden, head of the DA’s Organized Crime Squad, spoke up, declaring, “The investigation was tremendous work by the Harrison Police on this heinous crime.” He promised, “They will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Chief Hall, stepping back behind the microphone, ex-plained to reporters that Gary Pilavdjian was the ringleader, a contractor who did work at the
victims’ home, casing it and setting them up. He explained that Pilavdjian and John Mandracchia planned the robbery and recruited the others.

The Guardian asked, “What weapons were used in the Harrison home invasion?” Hall responded, “No guns were used; only their fists.” Neither Hall nor Marraccini were willing to respond when The Guardian asked, “What other evidence of crimes was discovered when the arrest warrants were executed?” Hall did, however, reveal that the investigation took police to the Bronx; Brooklyn; Columbia, South Carolina; and New Orleans,
Louisiana.

All six perpetrators have been preliminarily charged with First Degree Burglary, a Class-B Felony punishable by up to 25 years in State Prison. Hall indicated that he expected Assault, Robbery and Home Invasion charges to be added. The case will be heard by a grand jury this week.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Westchester Guardian/Jeffrey Deskovic.

Jeff Deskovic

DNA Testing: Only As Good As The Laboratory
Part 2


The following information was taken from the Associated Press: “AP reported this month that FBI lab technician Jacquelyn Blake recently
resigned while under investigation for failing to follow required scientific procedures while analyzing 103 DNA samples over the past couple of years, and a second lab employee was indicted for false testimony. Government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Inspector General Glenn Fine expanded the Blake inquiry to examine the FBI lab’s broader practices in DNA cases.

The FBI has been cooperating, officials said. FBI officials also are facing questions about how to protect the bureau’s national DNA database from a growing number of problems at local police crime labs. The police lab in Houston is under grand jury investigation for its DNA work. A police lab in Fort Worth, Texas, is facing a criminal inquiry after revelations that a senior forensic analyst ignored proper DNA procedures. Florida is grappling with a state crime lab worker in Orlando who falsified DNA data.

FBI officials have pulled DNA samples from the Houston lab from its national database and said they will examine the allegations involving
Fort Worth and Orlando to determine if any action is required to protect the national DNA registry. “The inspector general has been trying to push the FBI lab for regular audits of state and local labs that put DNA evidence into the national registry. An audit in 2001 disclosed half the local labs examined were not in compliance with FBI DNA standards. “No such audits of the DNA profiles in CODIS (the Combined DNA Index System) were being conducted at any level,” the inspector general warned the FBI.

“ ‘The FBI needs to improve its oversight ... to ensure the laboratories are in compliance with the act, the FBI’s quality assurance standards and the FBI requirements for laboratories participating in the national index,’ investigators warned.”

Two Illustrations Of Justice Gone Awry

The facts of this case are taken from The Innocence Project’s website: “In 2004, Josiah Sutton was exonerated after serving four and a half
years of a 25 year sentence for a rape he did not commit. Sutton’s conviction was the result of a mistaken identification and faulty scientific testing performed by the Houston police laboratory.

In 1998, the victim was abducted at gunpoint, raped by two men, and dumped into a nearby field. Five days after the attack, she identified Sutton and his friend as her possible attackers as she was driving in her neighborhood. The two teenage boys consented to requests by the police for blood and saliva samples to compare with evidence collected from the victim and her car. The testing concluded that Sutton
may have been an attacker, but his friend was excluded. Despite the victim identifying both boys, only Sutton was brought to trial.

The DNA evidence became the primary testimony against Sutton. The laboratory claimed that the semen sample from the backseat of the
car contained two profiles - Sutton’s and that of another, unidentified man. Moreover, a crime lab employee testified at trial that the DNA found on the victim was an exact match with Sutton, meaning that only about 1 person in 694,000 could have deposited the material whereas in reality, 1 in 16 black men share this profile. Sutton, asserting his innocence throughout the investigation and his incarceration, sought independent DNA testing during the trial. In his appeal, he claimed that his attorney was ineffective for not obtaining independent testing that would have been exculpatory.

The state asserted that the attorney was not ineffective because he told Sutton he did not have enough money for the testing. The flaws in Sutton’s conviction were numerous and not limited to DNA testing defects. After the rape, police were looking for a 5’ 7” man who was approximately 135 pounds. Sutton was picked up despite being 6’ and 200 pounds at the time.

While incarcerated, he studied DNA testing and led a hand-written request for retesting. He was denied and it was not until an independent
investigation of the police crime laboratory that he got his chance to prove his innocence. Two local reporters were investigating the police crime laboratory and sent transcripts and reports from numerous cases to a group of experts. One of these experts, University of California criminology professor William Thompson, described the reports as the worst he had ever seen and said they were not as scientifically
sound as a decent junior high school science project.

When the reporters broadcasted their story, Sutton’s mother was tuning in. She quickly contacted the reporters who agreed to investigate her son’s case. Thompson said of the report in the Sutton case that the mistakes practically jumped off the page. After examining the original DNA test strips, he concluded that the lab was completely wrong in their report. His finding led to retesting, that produced conclusive, exculpatory evidence. The semen source came from a single man, not two, and it did not come from Sutton.

The Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory has since been subjected to an investigation that has shown a great number of problems,
ranging from untrained staff to contamination of evidence, and the laboratory was shut down. Sutton’s case has shed light on many other cases where potentially innocent inmates are incarcerated as a result of faulty science.”

George Rodriguez served 17 years in prison in Texas for aggravated Sexual Assault of a child and aggravated kidnapping before being proven innocent by DNA. The facts of his case are taken from e Innocence Project’s website: “In February 1987, in Houston, Texas, a fourteen-year-old girl was forced into a car by two Latino men. She was taken to a house where both men raped her. After the sexual assault, she was placed in the car again and left on a roadside. In her initial statements to police, the victim characterized her assailants as the skinny one and the fat one. She also provided details about the house and the route the assailants took to get there. One of the assailants had called the other
by the name of George, but the victim indicated that she thought this was a fake name, as the assailants had discussed not using their names.

Based on this information, police went to the house belonging to Manuel and Uvaldo Beltran, brothers who were acquainted with George Rodriguez. Because the name George was used in the attack, Rodriguez became a suspect because one of the investigating officers knew of the Beltrans and knew that Rodriguez was an associate of Manuel.

When questioned, Rodriguez claimed that he was at work at the time of the crime, a claim confirmed by his work records. Uvaldo Beltran told police that he had been at home watching television when his brother and Isidro Yanez walked through with the victim and went to a bedroom. Manuel Beltran admitted to the crime, telling police that he and Yanez had brought the victim to the house and raped her in the bedroom while his brother was in the living room watching television.

Yanez had previously been named in a similar crime in the area. Police also confirmed that Yanez’s car was used in the abduction. Before the police spoke to Uvaldo Beltran, they had already shown the victim a photo array that included George Rodriguez’s photograph. She identified him from this array. Despite the evidence pointing to Yanez as Manuel Beltran’s partner in crime, police continued to consider Rodriguez a suspect. Proclaiming his innocence, Rodriguez agreed to take part in a show-up procedure, where the victim identified him, partly by the way he stood, as the fat perpetrator. She later testified that she had only been able to view his face for 3-4 seconds during the attack.

It was not until two months after the attack that the victim was shown a picture of Yanez. His picture was included with that of Rodriguez in a photo book. The victim picked out both pictures, noting their similarities, but eventually identified Rodriguez again as her assailant. Rodriguez became the main suspect after false evidence was returned from the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory, then under the direction of Jim Bolding.

The laboratory tested the victim’s rape kit and clothing. A hair found in the victim’s underwear was said to be microscopically similar to the hair standard from George Rodriguez. Semen found on the victim’s clothing and rape kit samples was said to include Manuel Beltran. Bolding
testified that Rodriguez could not be excluded from these samples but that Yanez definitely could not have contributed to the samples.

At the trial, this testimony represented the only physical link between Rodriguez and the crime. This testimony was later proven false by the State’s own testing. Bolding’s testimony at trial had falsely excluded Yanez. In October 1987, despite the statements of the Beltran brothers and the acknowledged similarities in features between Rodriguez and Yanez, George Rodriguez was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Rodriguez lost all of his appeals. In 2002, the Innocence Project began working on Rodriguez’s case. Most of the probative biological evidence had been destroyed in 1995. The hair that was microscopically matched to Rodriguez, however, was located. This was the same evidence that, coupled with the false serological conclusions, convinced the police to focus on Rodriguez and turn away from Yanez.

Rodriguez successfully petitioned for post-conviction DNA testing of the hair in 2003. Results of mitochondrial testing obtained in 2004 indicated that Rodriguez could not have been the man who left the pubic hair found in the victim’s underwear. Importantly, Yanez could not be excluded as a source of the hair. Additionally, further serological testing by the prosecution revealed that Yanez was mistyped at the time of trial and should never have been excluded as a potential contributor of the semen from the rape kit and the victim’s clothing.

Based on these scientific results, Rodriguez’s conviction was vacated. At the end of August 2005, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals formally vacated the conviction. At the end of September 2005, the District Attorney moved to dismiss all charges. After 17 years in prison and one year on bail waiting for the court’s decision, George Rodriguez’s conviction was vacated, confirming the results of post conviction DNA testing.”

A principle that I firmly stand upon is that these examples I will get into should not be looked at in isolation, as in “that’s horrible what
happened there”, without a further thought as to whether issues discovered in one place are not going on in another. Rather, inquiries should
be made just to be sure. Lessons that can be learned by examples of what happened in other states should be applied across the country to prevent it from happening elsewhere.

Why wait until we are affected? Here are a few suggestions: It is important that the qualifications of all lab experts across the country be
double-checked so that there is no repeat of what went on in the Houston Crime lab. Such review should be done by independent examiners. It is important that labs have oversight from independent agencies, who show up at unannounced times. When a lab has been shown to have problems requiring a review of past cases which may have been affected, that review should be done by a special master, as Bromwhich
advocated for in Houston. It most certainly should not be left up to a police department or a district attorney’s office, or any other agency
that previously has been involved in a prosecution, because of the danger that the review will not be done by people who are unbiased.

Accordingly, the attitude of District Attorney Rosenthal of Houston, who stated, “We have special masters, they are called judges” is ridiculous. Given that ‘tunnel vision’ has at times plagued many a police department and prosecutors office in cases in which a defendant has ultimately been proven innocent, it is not hard to imagine that additional covering up could go on, nor that subconscious bias could sway opinions, and play a role.

Once protocols are established in one state to prevent future mistakes that are based on sound science, other agencies across the country should take notice, and possibly adopt them, where applicable. Failure to follow correct protocols can, and has, lead to wrongful convictions,
which simultaneously leaves perpetrators free to strike again. It can also stop perpetrators from being arrested even when nobody has been wrongfully convicted, as happened in Boston when the lab administrator didn’t report the results of the DNA tests until after the statute of limitations had ran out That is unconsciousble to me, because it means that people who have been raped will never see their rapists punished.

The issue regarding the reliability of the DNA that states contribute to the national DNA Database, which links to the FBI Database, is one that should cause alarm in everybody. Clearly, those states that have been found not to have lived up to standards should have their samples
removed from the database.

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

Making the Grade

In the past eighteen months, the Metro North railroad crossing at Green Lane in Bedford Hills has been the site of several vehicle mishaps. The latest incident was on New Year’s Eve when a motorist claimed the warning signals did not activate in time for him to drive his vehicle out of the path of an oncoming train.

While the vehicle was damaged, fortunately the driver escaped uninjured. The Saw Mill River Parkway runs exactly parallel to the Metro
North railroad at Green Lane in Bedford. Several of the incidents at this crossing have been blamed on driver error, motorists following their GPS (Global Positioning Systems) blindly. Since the Metro North train tracks and the Parkway are within a few feet of each Making the Grade other, drivers are interpreting the GPS instructions to “turn right” to mean turning onto the railroad tracks instead of the Parkway.


Naturally, once the vehicles are on the tracks, they get stuck. Several vehicles were hit by oncoming trains in recent months; all drivers escaped injury. The folly of these drivers has inspired the creativity of local residents who are posting colorful stories about these escapades
on the internet: “Joe Blow from Katonah was returning home from a night of New Year’s festivities in White Plains when his car stalled on the Metro North crossing in Bedford Hills.


Blow, 45, managed to somehow maneuver his way around the gate, with its flashing lights, that was effectively barricading the train tracks when he turned to the back seat to fish out another beer from the cooler he had back there. He stopped the car on the tracks to get a better look at the dwindling selection, having finished off all the Budweisers.

Without warning a train full of drunken New Years Eve revelers, who for reasons unknown found it enjoyable to stand in sub-zero
wind chills for 13 hours to watch something they could have seen on TV, came speeding up the northbound track. Mr. Blow claims that the train did not have its lights on and that he did not hear the operator blow the choo choo whistle. Mr. Blow did manage to get his cooler out of the back seat before the train plowed into his Lexus. Train service on Metro North was disrupted for hours as investigators were trying
to find out the cause of the “accident”.


But they were able to say that the train really put the “dent” in “accident”. Most people on the train didn’t realize they were involved
in an accident as they were either passed out or vomiting at the time. A Metro North official believes that trains might be back on schedule by Monday’s morning rush hour”.


Metro North and local officials have stressed that these incidents are no laughing matter and that they take them very seriously. Indeed, Metro North has already updated their signs at this crossing. In one of the GPS incidents, the motorist immediately called 911 from his cell phone to notify emergency services that his vehicle was stuck on the train tracks.

However, Metro North has its own police service so the emergency notification to the trains was delayed since this information had
to be relayed. For that reason, Metro North posts the number to call for emergencies at all of their railroad crossings. At the Green Lane crossing, it was posted as “888-MTA911PD”. While alpha-numeric phone numbers are easier for the user to remember, they are far more difficult to dial for users of a “Blackberry” phone. Regular phones have the alphabet linked to each number in groups of three – number 2 is
“A,B,C”, number 3 is “D,E,F, and so on. Blackberry phones use a typewriter/computer keypad so the numbers are not linked to a letter of the alphabet. In order to dial an alpha phone number from a Blackberry, the user has to match the corresponding phone numbers and letters manually, often having to recite the entire alphabet to dial each number.


One of the drivers involved in the GPS incidents pointed out the difficulty of calling the Metro North emergency number from his Blackberry device. Metro North has already replaced the warning sign at the Green Lane crossing with a numbers-only phone number “888-682-9117”.

Metro North spokesperson, Marjorie Andrews, confirmed that all of their railroad crossings are in compliance with Federal standards and are inspected regularly. According to Andrews, “These incidents are always caused by a car being where it’s not supposed to be.” The State
Department of Transportation is also responding to these incidents.


According to Sandra Jobson, NYSDOT Region 8 (Hudson Valley) Public Information Officer, “This location was identified as having serious issues. The DOT already has a project underway to raise the roads so a car will not get stuck. This project is going to bid this Spring”. The project is listed on the NYSDOT web site as “SMRP@ GREEN LANE RAMP & GRADE CROSSING PROFILE IMPROVEMENTS, Project I.D. No. 821683”.

Th e project is expected to cost $270,000 and will be performed with federal and state funds, no local or County funding will be required. The finished crossing will be similar to the improvements made by the NYSDOT to the Reader’s Digest crossing in Chappaqua.

The NYSDOT reviews all accident reports led by police departments throughout the state analyzing them for patterns. “We look for patterns and incidents that are above average for the type of road, conditions, etc.” Jobson noted. “We had already identified the Green Lane crossing as needing improvement and the NYSDOT project was already underway”.

According to New York State railway-highway crossing analyses for 2007, the Green Lane crossing had only one crash at this crossing, resulting in minor injuries. In 2008, the incident level jumped to three, all without injuries. While most of these incidents have been related
to the misuse of GPS systems, the NYSDOT confirmed that they are not identifying GPS misuse as a variable in their analyses as yet; all such incidents are currently being reported on accident reports as “driver error” or “driver inattention”.


The Automobile Association of America also confirmed that they are not tracking incidents based on GPS misuse as of yet but expressed an
interest in the Guardian’s research for this article as a basis for a similar article of their own on this issue. As part of our research, the Guardian went to both the Reader’s Digest and Green Lane crossing to determine if the difference between these crossings presented difficulties for drivers.


The Guardian observed dozens of drivers crossing both roads with no difficulty, even when trains approached. All warnings operated allowing drivers to stop in time to avoid approaching trains. The Guardian did not notice any drivers having to “slam on their brakes” or use other emergency procedures to avoid incidents.

The Federal Railroad Administration, Office of Safety Analysis, reported only 2 highway-rail incidents in all of Westchester County for 2008, through October. While their statistics did not note Green Lane specifically, the two incidents correspond to the two GPS misuse incidents at this crossing. The FRA reported a total of 84 rail-road-related incidents in 2008, 47 of which were “employees on duty” or
other incidents due to trespassers, getting on/off equipment trains, stumbling aboard trains, assaults, doing maintenance work, throwing switches, setting handbrakes, stumbling, tripping, etc.


The FRA reported only one fatality for 2008, classifying this under “other” incidents due to trespass. Both Metro North and the NYSDOT stressed that all railroad crossings are safe when used properly. Lieutenant Mazurak of the Bedford Police Department, first responders for the Green Lane crossing, reiterated that statement. “All railroad crossings have the potential to be extremely dangerous so drivers need to
pay particular attention”.


Mazurak recommended that drivers follow the rules outlined in the Department of Motor Vehicles handbook:

• Come to a full stop;

• Look both ways before crossing;

• Proceed only when safe to do so.

According to Lieutenant Mazurak, “Railroad crossings are safe when drivers do what they are supposed to do”. One rule drivers may want to add to the DMV rules is to stop following their GPS systems blindly. This advice is emphasized by the manufacturers of the GPS systems themselves. The popular Garmin systems clearly note in their instructions “when in actual use, carefully compare indications
from the GPS to all available navigation sources including the information from other NAVAIDs, visual sightings, charts, etc. For safety, always resolve any discrepancies before continuing navigation”.


Regardless of any improvements made by Metro North and NYSDOT, drivers should still approach all crossings with caution. As one individual interviewed by the Guardian on this subject noted, “An argument between a train and a driver is not one the driver will win”. Fortunately, there have been no fatalities reported at the Green Lane crossing. If drivers follow the guidelines recommended by Lieutenant Mazurak, the DMV, AAA, Metro-North, and NYSDOT, the Green Lane, and all other local railroad crossings, will be able to maintain their safety records.



Westchester Guardian/The Advocate/Stephen Bonura/Janet Difiore.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Advocate
Richard Blassberg

Officer Bonura Confronted With A
Disgraceful Display Of Official Cowardice


Last Thursday evening, the Disciplinary Hearings against Pleasantville Detective Sergeant Stephen J. Bonura resumed before the Pleasantville
Village Board/Police Commissioners. Mayor Gordon opened the hearing, announcing, “This is the continued hearing on disciplinary charges of Detective Sergeant Stephen Bonura.” The Mayor then reiterated what he had said at the first session, many weeks earlier, “Although it is a hearing open to the public, it’s not a public hearing.”


Mr. Lovett, addressing the Board, stated, “At the end of the last meeting, you indicated that my client would continue without pay.” He
went further, advising the Village Board, “We’re in Federal Court tomorrow and, if I get what I want, I would suggest that you put my client
back on salary.”


Mr. Terry O’Neill, representing Complainant Police Chief Chiarlitti, then indicated that Bonura had been served with a subpoena intended to
compel his testimony.


Mr. Lovett told O’Neill, “Move to find him in contempt and I will add you to the lawsuit. He is not testifying.”

Lovett then repeated, “He is not testifying. I suggest it’s shenanigans because of the federal suit.” He went further, declaring, “You’re going
fast-forward. You think you’re going to put on a ‘dog and pony’ show here tonight to try and embarrass my client.”


Mr. O’Neill countered, “This is not federal court, and we have a witness who can shortcut the process.”

Mr. Lovett came back with, “In Federal Court, you will not be in control.” He then dared the Board, “Beat up my client a little more. Order him to testify. Find him in contempt.”

The Board then took a 25-minute break into executive session presumably to consider their position and to seek advice from their two
Board attorneys. Upon their return, Mayor Gordon spoke out, declaring, “Mr. Lovett, we have listened to your argument. Nothing we are doing here has anything to do with your federal case.”


Lovett shot back with, “The Chief of Police, in his infinite wisdom, has concocted the story that he has presented.” Mayor Gordon replied, “I’d like to call to everyone’s attention the Town has the power under Rules and Regulations of Article 22, but we can’t force him to testify.”

Attorney O’Neill, seeking direction from the Board, said, “We’re asking if the Board is directing Detective Sergeant Bonura to testify. We thought this would be an opportunity for the truth to set him free.” That comment drew laughter from the audience. O’Neill went on, “Detective Sergeant Bonura had a conversation with Shawn Cohen [newspaper reporter].

We have that tape here, a tape of Detective Sergeant Bonura’s interview.” Mr. Lovett, speaking of Attorney O’Neill, then told the Board, “He needs a foundation. If he’s got witnesses, let him call them.” Attorney O’Neill then snapped, “The witness who can testify is seated right here,” motioning to Detective Sergeant Bonura. He then indicated he was going to play several tape-recorded conversations.

Mr. Lovett then told O’Neill, “Then call him. He’s not your witness.” Lovett went on, “Why don’t you also play the recorded tape of the DA’s call into the Chief so the public can hear it. I’m sure that it was on a recorded line.” O’Neill then proceeded, as an offer of proof, to play a series of four tapes, the first of which was Detective Sergeant Bonura’s conversation with reporter Shawn Cohen. The tape played for approximately 20 minutes.

In the key conversation with Cohen, Detective Sergeant Bonura was heard saying of the District Attorney’s Office, “If they kept their
word, he’d be in jail right now.” For the next three hours O’Neill played a series of four tapes, mostly involving Lt. Wilson’s interrogation
of Bonura in an attempt to find justi-fication for the bogus charges Chief Chiarlitti had brought against him.


In the course of his discussion with reporter Cohen, Bonura indicated that Kahlil Gonzalez had a career in crime of 11 years since he was
16 years old, with some 30 arrests for a variety of crimes in places such as Briarcliff, New Castle, and Mount Pleasant, to name a few, besides the Village of Pleasantville.


At one point Bonura said to reporter Cohen, “Enough is enough. How much good can he possibly do to justify turning him loose? When do we draw the line on Kahlil Gonzalez?” There were some 95 people in the room, including Village residents and police officers, at the start of the tapes, more than 60 of whom stayed to hear it all despite the poor quality of the audio and the repititiousness of Lt. Wilson’s questions.

Throughout the four breaks taken by the Board between tapes, the comments of Village residents and police officers alike, basically questioned the need to be wasting taxpayers’ money on such a wrongful process by the Village Board. The playing of the tapes concluded at 9:15 pm.

At that point, Mr. Lovett said, “I think Lt. Wilson needs to be instructed in how to conduct an investigative interview.” He also questioned the legality of playing the tapes.

Lovett told Mayor Gordon that Attorney O’Neill, “without being sworn, presented the tapes subject to connection.”

O’Neill said, “We also have some videotapes,” about which Mayor Gordon asked, “How long are they?”

Attorney Lovett quipped, “With or without cartoons?”

Lovett then went on to declare to the Board, “I’d ask you to think this over.” Referring to the Board as ‘Elite Snobs’, Lovett then said, “The jury’s not going to like you very much. You prefer to hurt a 27-year veteran police officer. Try and show a little humanity.”

Next Day, Bonura In Federal Court

Friday morning, January 16th, some 12 hours after enduring a four-and-a-half-hour-long disciplinary hearing before the Pleasantville Village
Board/Police Commission, Detective Sergeant Stephen Bonura found himself in the United States District Court, White Plains, before Judge Cathy Seibel, accompanied by his wife Lisa and civil rights attorney Jonathan Lovett in an action entitled Stephen Bonura v Anthony Chiarlitti.


Prior to commencing the proceedings, Judge Seibel announced, “I am acquainted with one of the defendants, Ms. DiFiore.” To which
Attorney Lovett quickly responded, “That’s fine.”


The Judge then proceeded to ask, “Mr. Lovett, what is the status of your client?”

Lovett responded, “We attended another hearing last night. There are multiple hearings scheduled.” Lovett then went on to present an overview of the Kahlil Gonzalez affair. Speaking of his client, Detective Sergeant Bonura, Lovett told the Judge, “He expressed frustration with the fact that Gonzalez was arrested so many times and was still out.”

Seibel, referring to the report in The Journal News by Shawn Cohen, developed from his interview with Detective Sergeant Bonura, asked,
“Couldn’t someone reading the paper believe that he [Gonzalez] was a confidential informant?”


Lovett responded, by explaining the circumstances surrounding Police Chief Chiarlitti’s initial approval of Bonura’s remarks to the reporter,
as well as the First Amendment implications of the Chief ’s later response.


The Judge responded, “You’re not going to have a problem proving causation in this case, Mr. Lovett.” She then asked, “Couldn’t the Chief
have agreed with your client, but not with his making the statement?”


Lovett immediately replied, “No, Your Honor, he expressed approval of what he said.” Lovett then went on to inform the Judge of the
public’s response to the matter, and then repeated his assertion, “Stephen Bonura’s comment was Constitutionally-protected speech, and,
what Shawn Cohen wrote was also Constitutionally protected.


Judge Seibel then asked, “In terms of a police officer, don’t I have to balance First Amendment rights against whatever rights the employer has to control what his employee says?”

Lovett came back with, “The Chief admitted he agreed, and there was no disruption of the department. He merely expressed his frustration
with putting a career criminal back on the street.


At that point, the Judge asked, “What are you seeking?”

To which Lovett responded, “I am seeking a Temporary Injunction, a prohibitory injunction. He’s charged with ‘Expression Of His Opinion.’ To leave him twisting in the wind with a wife and five children, it’s been a sham from Day One.”

Attorney DeVita, an associate of Attorney Brian Sokoloff, also present and representing the Village of Pleasantville, two of six Defense
attorneys, told the Judge, “It’s the Village’s position that this case is frivolous.” He went on, “He tries to say to the Federal Court, ‘I have
a Constitutional right to violate the Constitutional rights of someone who is being investigated.’”


Following his associate’s comments, Attorney Sokoloff then cited Garcetti, a well-known case which deals with First Amendment rights in the law enforcement workplace.

Seibel responded that there was a distinction to be drawn in that he wasn’t giving his personal opinion, but was acting in his official capacity.
Sokoloff, however, took issue, arguing that Bonura was also acting in his official capacity, proceeding to read several passages from the transcript of Bonura’s telephone conversation with reporter Cohen.


The Judge shortened the reading, stating, “I gather that your position is that Detective Bonura was out of line.” She then remarked, “On
a Motion To Dismiss, I can still consider the transcript.”


Sokoloff persisted, “Mr. Lovett has jumped the gun. He cannot show a likelihood of success or irreparable harm. Just because he pulls out a
wild First Amendment claim, the Board Members have qualified immunity. It is a defense to what is happening here.”


With respect to references to District Attorney DiFiore’s role in Detective Sergeant Bonura’s situation, the Judge said, “It wouldn’t
surprise me if she was apoplectic or certainly disturbed.”


Attorney Lovett then attempted to address Defense allegations, stating, “They have totally ignored the fact that retaliatory actions were
taken against my client. They ignored everything but the conversation with reporter Cohen. He expressed his opinion on a matter of
public importance. There were four other speakers who the Defendants have completely ignored; unfavorable press, the Detectives’ Association, public sentiment at the original meeting, and the blogs.”


Lovett went on, “There will be testimony by an Assistant District Attorney that Lieutenant Love not only lied to him, but that he encouraged Defendant Gonzalez to sue the Village.”

At that point, Judge Seibel said, “Can I see counsel in sidebar, off the record, for a few minutes?”

Fourteen minutes later the Judge said, “We’re back on the record. At my suggestion, counsel is going to discuss whether there can be a resolution of issues. I am also going to ask if the disciplinary proceedings can be postponed in the meantime. I am not ordering it; it’s a practical suggestion.”

At that point, the proceedings were adjourned until Wednesday, February 4th at 9:15 am.

Questioned by this reporter as to his sentiments upon emerging from Federal Court, Attorney Lovett said, “The Judge’s suggestion is excellent, and hopefully, everybody will be flexible.”

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