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Albany should balance scales of criminal justice

Shawn Lawrence with lawyer Laura Solinger, left; his

Shawn Lawrence with lawyer Laura Solinger, left; his wife, Alicia Lawrence; and lawyer Susan Menu, right, outside court in Riverhead, Long Island, on Feb. 15, 2018, after a judge dismissed criminal charges against him. The judge cited prosecutorial misconduct and unreliable witnesses. Lawrence had been serving a sentence of 75 years to life for killing a man and shooting two others. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Shawn Lawrence received egregiously belated justice this year.

The 44-year-old from Long Island had been looking at life in prison and had served six years for the 2010 fatal shooting of James Terry, 44, before irregularities emerged about Lawrence’s prosecution. In February, a Suffolk County judge dismissed the case because the district attorney’s office admitted 45 items of crucial material, such as witness accounts, notes, and video from the case, had not been disclosed in a timely manner before the trial. State Supreme Court Justice William Condon called the prosecutorial misconduct “absolutely stunning.”

In New York, this situation is far too common, with prosecutors witholding key information not just through misconduct but also sometimes because the system allows a tilted playing field. Antiquated “discovery” rules don’t put strict benchmarks on turning over information, which can make it difficult for a defendant to receive solid advice about the case, negotiate a plea deal or prepare for trial.

Some defense attorneys experience the nightmare scenario of not seeing statements from key witnesses until the eve of trial.

Lapses can bring wrongful convictions

Whether this happens because of willful prosecutorial misconduct or limited rules regarding quick disclosure, it can amount to wrongful convictions. A 1963 Supreme Court ruling requires prosecutors to turn over material that would help prove a defendant innocent, but prosecutors often don’t face consequences for failing to do so. Other states require quick transfer of relevant information and have penalties for violations, but New York is woefully behind.

This year, proposals to reform discovery rules were floated around Albany in legislation endorsed by the New York State Bar Association and in a section of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget. Unfortunately, the proposals appear to have lost steam during budget dealmaking, along with crucial criminal justice reforms like reducing the unfair and often unnecessary use of cash bail. If so, solutions must be hashed out after the budget, a potential opportunity for Cuomo to prove his reformer credentials.

There are obstacles. District attorneys often oppose discovery reform on the grounds that being required to share some information can endanger witnesses and increase witness intimidation.

Lawmakers must make an effort

This is a real concern, especially in gang-related cases, but compromise is possible. The new rules should not allow prosecutors to redact information at will, as Cuomo’s budget originally proposed. The bar association’s suggestion is a good start: If prosecutors think information will endanger witnesses, then get a protective order from a judge, a common practice nationally.

With Republican control of the State Senate, broad discovery reform will be a tough sell. Yet the legislature must at least make a start. Some district attorneys, such as in Brooklyn, say they already voluntarily share most information quickly without danger to public safety.

This is an issue of balancing the scales of justice. These reforms are too late for Shawn Lawrence, but not for others awaiting trial in New York who are innocent until they are proven guilty.


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