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More Of The Same: Ex-Prosecutors Won’t Reform Queens DA Office

Theodore Hamm May 16, 2019

As a qualification for DA, prosecutorial experience can be overrated.

Of the four former prosecutors among the seven Democrats running in the June primary, two — Greg Lasak and Mina Malik — are products of the deeply flawed Queens DA’s office.

Neither Tiffany Cabán, Rory Lancman nor Melinda Katz bring prosecutorial experience (or baggage) to the race, although Katz is viewed as the least likely of the three to shake up the current office.

According to New York appellate judges and veteran legal observers, there are longstanding patterns of close cooperation between police, prosecutors and criminal court judges in Queens. To an even greater extent than in other local jurisdictions, the deck is fully stacked against defendants there.

Lasak nonetheless touts his 39 years of experience handling criminal cases in Queens, first as an ADA and chief of homicide bureau, then for the last 15 years as a Supreme Court criminal judge. Although backed by all the law enforcement unions, Lasak has also received high praise from the Times’ Jim Dwyer, who views him as an “old school” DA, albeit one willing to expose wrongful convictions.

Malik entered the Queens DA’s office in the late 1990s and over the next 15 years she worked in the appeals bureau and later as a prosecutor in the Special Victims Bureau. Malik prefers to tout her credentials as a reformer, which stem from her work with late Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson and then as executive director of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (although her stint provoked controversy).

Lasak’s campaign insists that the judge is the “only qualified candidate” on the ballot, a rather condescending knock against Malik. But the Malik campaign’s unsuccessful attempt last month to remove Lasak and the other two former prosecutors (Jose Nieves and Betty Lugo) from the ballot fanned the flames.

As a judge, Lasak handled the key initial hearing regarding the evidence in the Chanel Lewis murder case. His ruling in favor of the prosecution fully supported the NYPD’s handling of Lewis’ arrest.

Lasak’s analysis of Lewis’ two confessions (first to NYPD detectives, then to Queens prosecutors) is skewed in favor of the NYPD’s account, even though the videotaped statements were admitted into evidence for the hearing. According to Lasak’s ruling, in the initial statement, Lewis told detectives that he saw the victim, Karina Vetrano, “running by, grabbed her, and punched her.”  And “[f]or the most part, the defendant repeated the statements” to prosecutors four hours later.

What Lasak’s description leaves out is any reference to Lewis strangling Vetrano, which was the official cause of death. In the first statement, Lewis mentions strangling her only once, in passing; in the second statement, he says so several times, at times contradicting the first statement. The discrepancy strongly suggests that detectives coached Lewis to emphasize strangulation to the prosecutors. But Lasak’s distorted presentation of the facts enabled him to rule that the “statements were not the product of any police coercion.”  

Such problems alone may not provide grounds to overturn Lasak’s rulings on the Lewis evidence, but they do show his willingness to back up dubious NYPD actions. And as a judge, he also fought to preserve a guilty verdict despite abundant evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

In 2006, Julio Negron was convicted in Lasak’s courtroom of attempted murder after a road rage incident. Six years later, Negron brought forth evidence that the prosecution had withheld information about his neighbor’s arrest for gun charges that occurred precisely when the cops first collared Negron. But Lasak refused to hold a hearing on the new evidence.

In 2015, then-Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote the Court of Appeals decision vacating Negron’s conviction, which maintained that Negron did not receive a fair trial and it was “error” by Lasak not to hold the follow-up hearing. Lippman ordered a new trial for Negron, but in 2017, Lasak ended up dismissing the indictment.

Lasak also appears to support the practice of smearing defendants, popular among Queens prosecutors. The judge made Ronald Ellis (who had been involved in the killing of NYPD officer Russel Timoshenko) wear prison garb for three days of jury selection and five days during the trial. Although the appellate division upheld the conviction, in her dissent Judge Betsy Barros delivered a stinging rebuke, arguing that Lasak’s “dismissive treatment” and “cursory denial” of Ellis’ objections led her “to the conclusion that not only was the defendant deprived of a fair trial, but that he should be tried again before a different Justice.”

During her time in the Queens DA’s Appeals Bureau, Malik also defended a number of dubious practices. In a 2001 ruling, the appellate division ordered a new trial because the prosecutor’s tactics included ridiculing the defendant in summation. “Of course he did it. This isn’t a question of who did it,” she remarked. A year later, the higher court dismissed an indictment because the ADA’s fouls during opening and closing statements were so “flagrant.” Malik helped the Appeals Bureau unsuccessfully fight to preserve both convictions.

The “win-at-all-costs” playbook is by no means exclusive to the Queens office. But under the late Richard Brown and his right-hand man, current acting DA John Ryan, a prosecutor’s won-loss record reportedly determined compensation and promotion decisions, thus incentivizing dirty tricks.

The Queens DA’s office, in short, needs a housecleaning.


Photo: Greg Lasak via greglasak.com.

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