Following our latest Jabbar Collins post, another case out of Brooklyn is keeping a spotlight on the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office for using allegedly improper practices to secure convictions using shaky witness testimony.
Joaquin Sapien of Propublica recently published an extensive article exploring allegations by defendants that district attorneys’ offices in New York have a habit of wielding material witness orders against people to improperly compel testimony.
In his article, “A Powerful Legal Tool, and Its Potential for Abuse,” Sapien first highlights the case of Ruddy Quezada out of Brooklyn, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1993 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The only eyewitness to testify at Quezeda’s trial has since recanted his testimony and blames the Brooklyn DA’s office for pressuring him to give false evidence:Quezada’s lawyers say that on March 11, 1993, a man named Sixto Salcedo was checked into the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza. Salcedo, they say, was released the following day, after he agreed to do what prosecutors wanted: testify that he had seen Ruddy Quezada shoot dead a man named Jose Rosado on the streets of Brooklyn. Salcedo did testify, and Quezada was convicted. But a lot has happened since – Salcedo has recanted his testimony, another man has confessed to the murder, and Quezada has asked a federal judge to free him from prison. And much of what happens next could turn on what took place at the Crowne Plaza that night 20 years ago. Salcedo now says in sworn testimony that he never saw Quezada shoot anyone, and that he only agreed to say otherwise after he had been arrested on a material witness order, threatened by detectives and held overnight in one of the hotels used by the district attorney’s office.
Holding witnesses in hotel rooms until they are prepared to give favorable testimony contravenes basic protocols that prosecutors must abide by when using material witness orders, Sapien reports. Once prosecutors detain witnesses, they are supposed to bring them before a judge immediately. The judge will then provide the witness with a lawyer, who will represent him or her at a subsequent hearing to determine his or her reasons for not wanting to testify.
However, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes had his prosecutors do no such thing in the Collins or Quezeda cases. The DA’s office denied that their key witness in the Quezeda case, Sixto Salcedo, was compelled to testify and only recently turned over evidence that demonstrates the contrary:For nearly a decade, in court filings and hearings, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office insisted there was no material witness order used to compel Salcedo’s testimony. State judges accepted the district attorney’s claims. Quezada’s appeals were rejected. But in 2011, close to 20 years after Quezada’s conviction, prosecutors produced what they had long insisted didn’t exist: a warrant to arrest Salcedo signed by Judge Abraham Gerges on Feb. 8, 1993. It stated that Salcedo should be brought “before the court forthwith” for a hearing to determine whether he did in fact have testimony relevant to the case and whether he should be held in police custody. Quezada’s lawyers also were given the page of the hotel custody log that recorded Salcedo’s night at the Crowne Plaza hotel. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office offered no explanation or apology for its failure to turn over the material earlier.
Salcedo suggests he was never brought before a judge, but rather detained by prosecutors until he agreed to testify.
In the Collins case, the Brooklyn DA’s office similarly hid the ball. Sapien notes that Collins was told for years that material witness orders were not used to secure the testimony of a key state witness in the case. But Collins’s attorney found evidence to the contrary, in part while he deposed a former investigator of Hynes’s office who revealed that he was responsible for picking up and coercing the witnesses:The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office has denied Rudin’s claim that the office ran a rogue operation in which witnesses were routinely jailed and coerced into testifying falsely. To date, the office has not responded to [the investigator’s] portrayal of how material witnesses were handled. Salsarulo, in his affidavit, painted a vivid picture of how uncooperative witnesses were dealt with, and how such treatment could produce useful testimony. Witnesses, he said, would be left handcuffed in their underwear. “You like pants?” Salsarulo said he would ask the witness. Salsarulo, who now works as an agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in New Jersey, said the technique often worked. “If they’re compliant,” he said of the jailed witnesses, “we dress them and give them water, whatever they need so they would be comfortable.”
Sapien’s article also highlights other cases out of New York where material witness orders appear to have been used improperly, including a Queens case which has prompted a lawsuit against local prosecutors. However, the Quezeda case is of particular interest in light of the recent spate of wrongful convictions out of Hynes’s office. The Brooklyn DA faces mounting pressure to do something about his office’s practices and record as he fights for reelection in September.