March 25, 2004
Gang Killing Verdict Is Tossed for Lying Witnesses
Brooklyn gang murder case is in disarray after a federal judge overturned the conviction of a Red Hook man for the killing, saying prosecutors had relied on "blatant, critical perjury by all of the key witnesses."
The judge, John Gleeson, stopped short of saying the federal prosecutors in Brooklyn knew that their witnesses were lying at a jury trial in April. But in an extraordinary 60-page decision, the judge was clearly distressed by the actions of the prosecutors from the office of the United States attorney, Roslynn R. Mauskopf.
Judge Gleeson said he feared that an innocent man had been convicted on "patently incredible testimony" and had a "concern that perjury was deliberately elicited'' by the prosecutors. The decision was released quietly last month but drew little attention.
The decision was a raw judicial exploration of familiar claims by defense lawyers that prosecutors rely excessively on witnesses who get lenient plea deals and lie. Prosecutors often say they take their witnesses as they come and work to control informants who distort the truth.
Yesterday, a spokesman for Ms. Mauskopf, Robert Nardoza, said prosecutors could not comment because the case was before the court. In a December letter to the judge, an assistant United States attorney, Pamela Chen, said prosecutors "did not knowingly present perjured testimony" and diligently investigated the witnesses' accounts. But she conceded that "perhaps we could have done more to probe the credibility of our witnesses.''
On March 3, two weeks after Judge Gleeson overturned the verdict, the prosecutors gave up their charges that the Red Hook man, Angel M. DeAngelo, was a killer. They reached a plea deal, dropping charges that included murder in aid of racketeering in exchange for Mr. DeAngelo's admission that he made a false statement when he denied he was present at the murder.
Mr. DeAngelo, 31, was released immediately. He had been facing life in prison after prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty.
"How many other people did they do this to?'' Mr. DeAngelo asked yesterday in a telephone interview from Latham, N.Y., near where he now lives. "They believe anything these people say. It's all about a collar; it has nothing to do with justice.''
Some lawyers said yesterday that the decision was unusual for its blunt discussion of prosecutors' use of false testimony. Benito Romano, a former United States attorney in Manhattan, said he could not recall a similar ruling in which a judge ordered a new trial after such a sweeping finding that the government's case was built on perjury.
"It has serious implications,'' Mr. Romano said, "because it means the normal practices you rely on for preventing this sort of thing haven't worked.''
The decision was the second in recent months in which a federal judge found that prosecutors in Ms. Mauskopf's office had relied on false information. Also in February, another Brooklyn federal judge, Nicholas G. Garaufis, said in a drug paraphernalia case that prosecutors relied on a false declaration by an F.B.I. agent. Prosecutors have asked Judge Garaufis to reconsider.
The decision said the three main cooperating witnesses against Mr. DeAngelo were violent gang members who lied to implicate him. The judge described Mr. DeAngelo as a working father who was not in a gang. The decision said prosecutors now concede that one of the three cooperating witnesses, the gang leader, ordered the killing of a rival gang member, Thomas Palazzotto.
After the trial, Judge Gleeson said in court that he believed that one of the other cooperating witnesses had killed Mr. Palazzotto, though he did not specify which one. He suggested in the decision that the three witnesses framed Mr. DeAngelo to avoid long sentences for murder.
Under their cooperation agreements, all three pleaded guilty to crimes and had expected lenient treatment in exchange for their testimony. In some similar cases, cooperating witnesses have been sentenced to four or five years, far less than the life sentences they could have received for participation in a killing. The three witnesses are yet to be sentenced and may well face much longer terms.
Yesterday, Mr. DeAngelo's lawyer, Lloyd Epstein, said prosecutors seemed to disregard problems with their witnesses. He said the prosecutors first offered Mr. DeAngelo the opportunity to plead guilty and receive a 15-year sentence.
Even after the judge expressed concern about perjury, Mr. Epstein said, the prosecutors suggested plea deals that would have put Mr. DeAngelo in prison for as long as eight years. "Sometimes," Mr. Epstein said, "prosecutors get so invested in their informants - they fall in love with their informants, so to speak - that they fail to objectively see what their informants are all about.''
In his decision, Judge Gleeson said that both before and after the jury convicted Mr. DeAngelo, inmates in prison with the three witnesses began sending officials a reports saying the witnesses had lied and, in some cases, were bragging about it.
But the judge said the prosecutors continued to make what he called a frivolous argument that the witnesses' false testimony was not central to their case against Mr. DeAngelo.
Two weeks after the decision, the prosecutors agreed to release Mr. DeAngelo and dropped the charge that he was a killer.
||Truth in Justice