A Suffolk County prosecutor in Long Island, NY recently lost his job, evidently because he poorly represented the State in a recent high-profile criminal prosecution and withheld exculpatory evidence. Late last month, leaders in the DA’s office came to court in the middle of trial to announce that they were dropping the arson charges against two firefighters—a reversal of the prosecution’s previous position that the two men set fires intentionally to extinguish them for recognition. In a case in which several jurors later criticized the State for failing to produce any persuasive evidence, (now former) Assistant District Attorney Andrew Weiss tried to grab hold of an unconstitutional advantage: he withheld evidence that he was obligated to turn over. The local reporting explained what happened when this suppression came to light:
The withheld evidence included new criminal charges against accomplices who testified against Hernandez and Drayton, surveillance video that failed to show the defendants doing things claimed by the accomplices, video from fire scenes that did not show the defendants, and crack dealing and gang membership of one of the accomplices.
Weiss repeatedly argued in court that the evidence was not relevant or that he had only just learned of it. [Judge] Collins grew increasingly frustrated with those explanations, calling them “doubletalk” and “mealy-mouthed” and said at one point that it would be “giving them too much credit” to suggest that Weiss and his co-counsel were capable of committing intentional misconduct.
Ouch. That debacle happened a few weeks before trial ultimately began, but the State pressed forward to trial. However, when it became clear that the case had fallen apart, Weiss’s superiors came in to clean up the mess. Then they showed him the door.
The current DA, Timothy Sini, did the right thing here. Sini came into office in part because he pledged to keep things above board. His predecessor, Thomas Spota, had developed a bad reputation. As we have discussed before, the Spota administration was marred by allegations of political corruption and by prosecutors bungling murder cases through their failure to disclose exculpatory evidence. For instance, former prosecutor Glenn Kurtzrock was asked to resign mid-trial after it came to light that he had suppressed key evidence in the Messiah Booker case and others. (As an aside, the Innocence Project recently filed a lawsuit to find out why the grievance committee for the Tenth Judicial District hasn’t disciplined Kurtzrock, who continues to practice law two years later as a defense attorney.) By ridding his office of Weiss, Sini sent a strong signal.
However, questions still linger. Weiss’s Brady faux-paus occurred well before the disastrous trial started. If Weiss was really fired because he committed misconduct, why did it take so long for the DA to get rid of him? Is there a chance the Brady violation was used as pretext for a decision that was actually based on Weiss’s failure to put on a more convincing case? These are questions worth asking.
Weiss was the chief of the DA’s Public Integrity Bureau. Ironically, “[t]he mission of the Public Integrity Bureau is to promote honest government.” The website trumpets that “[t]he Public Integrity Bureau is a critical part of maintaining the public’s trust in government and ensuring that all people are treated fairly under the law.” Clearly, Weiss was not the right man for the job. One must wonder, however, how a prosecutor with a charge as honesty-focused as his could run afoul of his ethical obligations. What are other prosecutors in Suffolk County doing? How are they trained? Do they know what Brady requires? Notwithstanding the passage of a modest set of discovery reforms by the New York state legislature in April, the decision about which evidence to turn over to defense counsel remains in the hands of line prosecutors and requires close scrutiny.
It is unusual for prosecutors to lose their jobs when they commit misconduct. (Sometimes, they actually get fired when they refuse to commit misconduct!) This kind of swift accountability is meaningful. Yet, Sini’s decision to hold Weiss accountable fails to answer several important questions. Sini should not be let off the hook yet. The public needs to know whether Weiss was merely a bad actor or a bad actor within a troubled system. The answer will show whether more must be done to change the culture of the Suffolk office. As the fact of the Innocence Project’s lawsuit reminds us, real accountability requires long-term attention and structural reform.