NY Law Journal

Putnam DA Key Player in Release of Man Found Innocent of Arson

Mark Hamblett, New York Law Journal
May 31, 2016  

A man who spent eight years in prison has been cleared of the arson charge that landed him there, and is now free because of a big assist by the Putnam County District Attorney.

William Haughey, 44, was convicted in 2008 of setting fire to Smalley's Inn in Carmel on March 10, 2007 after having words with the bar's owner and manager.

On Monday, however, just two weeks after Putnam County District Attorney Robert Tendy took the extremely rare step of siding with Haughey and telling Southern District Magistrate Judge Lisa M. Smith he believed Haughey was innocent, Judge Vincent Briccetti vacated the conviction.

Haughey was in Smalley's around 1 a.m. drinking beer, when he claimed he was just as surprised as other clientele to smell smoke coming from the bathroom.

While another person was investigating whether it was a fire in the trash can, Haughey entered the bathroom, got up on the toilet, pulled aside some ceiling tiles and brought some burning brown paper towels out onto the floor.

Anthony Porto, the owner and manager of Smalley's, who had a history with Haughey and earlier in the evening told him "you've got some nerve showing your face in here," called the police.

Haughey was arrested the following day. He called no witnesses at trial, as his attorney Edward McCormack insisted the prosecution provided no motive for arson.

Haughey's current attorney, Theodore Green of Green & Willstatter, said Wednesday the evidence against his client was legally insufficient.

The reason, he said, was that the opinion offered at trial by fire investigator Robert Geoghegan that the fire was incendiary "was fundamentally flawed," because Geoghegan failed to determine whether the restaurant was equipped with a circuit breaker or fuse box and failed to examine fire damage of a plywood layer above the ceiling tiles.

Moreover, he said, Haughey received ineffective assistance of counsel because of the failure of trial lawyer McCormack not to call an expert "on the erroneous belief that the court had not authorized funds" for an expert.

Haughey was convicted by a jury before Putnam County Court Judge James Rooney and sentenced to serve 10 years in prison.

Haughey wrote several letters from the Mohawk Correctional Facility insisting on his innocence and he ultimately enlisted the aid of the Jeffery Deskovic Foundation. The foundation was started by Jeffrey Deskovic with a $10 million wrongful conviction award he won in 2014 against Putnam County for the abusive interrogation and faked evidence by an investigator with the sheriff's office that led to him serving almost 16 years behind bars for the 1989 murder of Peekskill High School classmate Angela Correa (NYLJ, Oct. 24, 2014).

Haughey also learned in 2014 that the office of District Attorney Adam Levy and the office of the New York State Attorney General had conducted a factual investigation and concluded that his claim of actual innocence could not be substantiated.

Haughey's big breakthrough was when he wrote to Tendy, then a criminal defense attorney who was in the process of defeating the man whose office prosecuted Haughey, Levy, in the 2015 election. At one point, Levy told the Danbury News Times that "the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming" against Haughey.

But Haughey didn't give up. He continued his letter-writing campaign and his bid to win habeas relief.

"Criminal lawyers get these kinds of letters all the time, but Haughey's letter struck me as different," Tendy said Thursday. "It didn't make me roll my eyes."

Tendy got the files and wrote back to Haughey saying that, if elected, he would look into his case. Once in office, Tendy said he convened a sort of "fledgling conviction integrity unit" of lawyers in the office and "they all came to the same conclusion I did"—that Haughey hadn't committed a crime.

Also agreeing with Tendy was a separate, outside investigator who had been retained by Levy and ultimately concluded the cause of the fire could not be determined.

"We thought there was no evidence he did anything wrong," Tendy said, so he took the unusual step of joining in a convicted defendant's petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

The habeas petition was opposed by the office that defends the state against challenges to convictions—the attorney general. But on May 2, Magistrate Judge Smith granted Tendy's motion to replace the attorney general as counsel.

On May 6, Smith issued an order to produce the body of Haughey and his property at the federal courthouse in White Plains. On May 9, she ordered him released conditionally, giving him the freedom that became permanent when Briccetti issued his order on May 23 approving the settlement and vacating the conviction.

The settlement states the evidence was insufficient and "the parties further agree that Petitioner has established by clear and convincing evidence that he is actually innocent of the offenses of which he was convicted by the state court."

"To his credit, District Attorney Tendy undertook a review of this case, and he came to the same conclusion that Mr. Haughey had asserted in his petition, that the evidence against him was legally insufficient," Green said.


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