Thursday, January 8, 2009
First Amendment Retaliation That
Contaminated State And Federal Prosecutions
A civil rights lawsuit filed last Wednesday morning, Dec. 31st, in United States District Court, White Plains, finally connects-the-dots in what has been one of the more outrageous miscarriages of justice, first perpetrated in Westchester County Court, and later in Federal Court, against former County Corrections Of-ficer Paul Cote.
Cote, a 12-year veteran of the Westchester Department of Corrections, was on duty at the County Jail, Cell-block 1-G, at approximately 5pm
the evening of October 10, 2000 manning the salley port doors to the unit which houses inmates known to have psychiatric issues. At that time, a fellow corrections officer, one John Mark Reimer, a 6-foot 2-inch, 270-lb individual, became involved in an altercation with a physically
belligerent inmate, Zorn Teodorovic.
Reimer, attempting to place the inmate back into his cell, was punched in the face by Teodorovic, “in the presence of several other inmates also not in their cells.” Reimer reflexively responded by putting Teodorovic into a bear-hug, pinning his arms to his sides, and body-slammed him, swinging him through an arc with a radius of some 7 feet, and bouncing the left side of his head “violently” on the concrete cell-block floor.
Officer Cote rushed to assist Reimer, who was experiencing considerable difficulty attempting to physically restrain the out-of-control inmate. Employing the approved methods, Cote kicked, and side-kicked, the inmate, catching the right side of his jaw with his boot. As Teodorovic continued to struggle, Reimer, who was punching him in the chest and face, once again applied a bear-hug around Teodorovic’s waist and fell to the
concrete floor with him.
It happened that, prior to the Teodorovic incident, Officer Cote had been present, nearly a year and a half earlier, when a fellow officer named Roca, an Hispanic, had been ethnically demeaned and addressed as a “wetback rookie” by Corrections Captain Joseph Polewaski. Officer Roca prevailed upon Cote, at the time, to fill out a report detailing the discriminatory incident, which, in fact, Cote proceeded to do. Roca filed a civil
rights suit, Roca v Pozzi, in which Captain Polewaski was named as a defendant.
At the time that Officer Cote made out his report, the Captain attempted to intimidate and dissuade him from doing so. The circumstances created
a personal animus toward Cote that the Federal complaint alleges Polewaski harbored with the intention of taking “retaliatory action at such
time as the opportunity arose.”
Another incident, little more than a year later, in late 1999, involved Joseph Spano who, at the time, was the President of the Correction Officers Union (COBA). Reportedly as Spano was conducting a walk-through of the jail facility, Of-ficer Cote, a Union member, and a member of The Collective Bargaining Unit, took the opportunity to confront Spano with regard to Spano’s and the Union’s failure over a five-year period to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the County, causing a great deal of forced overtime and putting officers at increased risk.
The suit alleges that the confrontation was witnessed by a number of officers and inmates, and that “Spano developed and maintained a personal animus toward Cote by reason of which he, like Polewaski, determined to take retaliatory action at such time as an opportunity arose.”
The complaint details actions that were taken by the Defendants, including Spano and Polewaski, to implicate and frame Officer Paul Cote
when it was learned by them that inmate Teodorovic “had suffered a serious injury to the left side of his head, a result of Reimer’s initial body
slam that caused the left side of Teodorovic’s head to violently ricochet off the cell-block’s concrete floor.”
The complaint discusses Officers “Reimer, Polewaski, Jackowiak, and Spano’s retaliatory conduct, and the false testimony they suborned from the inmates” resulting in the indictment of Officer Cote by a Westchester grand jury on a charge of Assault, First Degree. The case went to trial and Cote was acquitted of Intentional Assault, but was convicted of Second Degree Assault, and sentenced to three months in jail. He served his time
in the Putnam County Jail and was released November 27, 2001.
Officer Cote lost his job, his benefits, his pension and his career. The complaint alleges that the Defendants “pursued their retaliatory plan by encouraging, through the Westchester County District Attorney, and meetings and interviews they personally gave,” the FBI and the United
States Attorney to further prosecute Plaintiff Cote.
The Guardian was present at Federal Court, White Plains for the pre-trial and jury trial of Paul Cote little more than two years ago, before the late Judge Charles L. Brieant. It was obvious, very early on, that the great Judge had no use for the charges lead prosecutor, Assistant United States Attorney Cynthia Dunne, was bringing against Cote. Teodorovic had died some 14 months following the body slam incident.
Cote was charged more than five years later with “violating his civil rights,” and, John Mark Reimer was the Government’s chief witness. On cross-examination, it was developed that Reimer required 17 hours of rehearsal with Prosecutor Dunne and others from the United States Attorney’s Office before testifying.
In pre-trial hearings, Judge Brieant had made his feelings about the Prosecution’s case very clear in a sidebar when he told Dunne, “If your case fails, I will not be sad.” At trial, the jury, which had sat expressionless throughout the proceedings, took far less than an hour, on September 20, 2006, to return a verdict of guilty. It was obvious to this observer that they had never really plugged into the pre-posterousness of the “bill of goods” the Government had fed them, and were merely going through the motions.
Judge Brieant, however, wasn’t fooled for a second, and, on April 4, 2007, in response to a Defense motion, granted Cote a Judgment Of Acquittal, conditionally granting him a new trial in the event that the judgment was reversed on appeal by the Government to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
For reasons that only recently have become clear, in a Michael Garcia puff piece interview in another local weekly newspaper, the then United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in an unusual move, took it upon himself to make the oral argument against Judge Brieant’s courageous and clearly justified and correct action in having overturned Paul Cote’s conviction “as inconsistent with the evidence presented at trial.”
In his interview, Garcia revealed his intense personal interest, over a period of more than eight years, in securing a conviction and punishment
of a veteran correction Officer who he knew very well, was not the individual who had delivered the injury that resulted in inmate Teodorovic’s ultimate death from brain trauma.