Former Suffolk judge's memoir details controversial tenure

Judge Stuart Namm sits in his home in Judge Stuart Namm sits in his home in Hampstead, North Carolina, Thursday, February 27, 2014. Namm worked as a judge for 16 years in Suffolk County, and wrote a book about his experiences. Photo Credit: Matt Born

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It has been 21 years since Stuart Namm left Long Island, abandoned by his own party and turned out from his job as a Suffolk County Court judge.

His ouster came after he exposed fabricated police testimony in several murder cases -- a role that earned him both respect and derision from different factions in the county's criminal justice system.

But now he's back, with a book about what he saw, what he did and what happened to him as a result, and some who remember him wish he would stay quiet.

Namm, 80, said he began the book while he was still on the bench in Riverhead, but resurrected it only last year after a scare with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. "I can't die without this story being told," he said.

The book, "A Whistleblower's Lament: The Perverted Pursuit of Justice in the State of New York," published by Hellgate Press, comes out Sunday. In it, Namm describes his swift evolution in 1985 from a law-and-order judge known as "Maximum Stu" to a judge so skeptical of law enforcement's willingness to tell the truth that the Suffolk district attorney's office filed motions seeking to remove him from cases, accusing him of "animosity and bias."

His identification of perjured testimony in cases he heard led him to ask then-Gov. Mario Cuomo to investigate county law enforcement, and the State Commission of Investigation did so. It ultimately released a blistering report, condemning Suffolk homicide and narcotics detectives and prosecutors for engaging in misconduct and showing no interest in rooting it out.

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In the wake of that investigation, then-Suffolk District Attorney Patrick Henry declined to seek re-election and much of the Suffolk Police Department's leadership turned over.

But many of the people Namm identified as his adversaries have become fixtures in the criminal justice system. Thomas Spota, a former homicide prosecutor under Henry and then the former attorney for the Superior Officers Association, is in his fourth term as district attorney. Former prosecutors William Keahon, Steven Wilutis, Ray Perini and Timothy Mazzei are successful defense attorneys, and Mazzei is a Brookhaven Town Board member. Mark Cohen, chief of the appeals bureau under Henry and chief assistant district attorney under Henry's successor, James Catterson Jr., is now an acting State Supreme Court justice.

For Namm, the current prominence of Spota and Cohen tells him that the culture of Suffolk law enforcement hasn't changed.

Although Spota had left the district attorney's office by the time Namm's battles began, the former judge lumped Spota in with the other defenders of what he described as law enforcement's war on his credibility, and criticized Spota for defending detectives and prosecutors at the State Commission of Investigation's hearings in 1987.

"Tom Spota -- he's their god," Namm said, referring to police. "A horse doesn't change colors."

He said he is disappointed that Cohen is a judge. In the book, Namm criticized Cohen for directing an effort to get certain cases taken out of Namm's courtroom.

"Is Mark Cohen now not totally prosecution minded? People like Cohen -- they have to answer to their consciences," he said. "I did what I had to do."

 

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Heavy criticism

Keahon, Wilutis and Cohen declined to comment on Namm and his book, but Spota, Perini and Mazzei said Namm was off base then and the book shows he's still out of touch.

"His recollection is very different from mine," Spota said. "I think Namm was seeing shadows everywhere. Why was it only Judge Namm who saw this stuff, and no other judge?"

Perini, chief of the narcotics bureau under Henry, said, "It seems like he's become a bitter old man."

Namm wouldn't disagree and said anyone who was treated as he was by the law enforcement and political establishment would be bitter.

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"I loved being a lawyer," he said. "The pinnacle of my success as a lawyer was to be a judge, and they destroyed my dream. It's hard to forget this. It's hard not to be bitter. I'm bitter about these people who have gone on to better things. That's a difficult pill for me to swallow."

Namm was first elected Suffolk District Court judge in 1975, a Democrat who barely won thanks to anti-Republican sentiment after the Watergate scandal and his promise to voters to end "the revolving door system of justice."

He quickly got a reputation as a tough judge, but lost re-election in 1981 when Republicans regained power. Then, in 1982, Gov. Hugh Carey appointed him to a vacancy on the County Court and he was re-elected that year thanks to a cross-endorsement.

Soon afterward, he was named one of three judges to preside over all homicide trials in Suffolk.

"I wasn't asked to try homicide cases because I was a good judge," Namm said he later realized. "It was because I was seen as a tough, pro-prosecution judge."

And he continued as one, setting high bail for defendants and giving out maximum sentences to those who were convicted.

Then, in 1984, Namm was presiding over the trial of Vincent Waters, charged with attempting to murder a police officer. Namm granted a hearing after defense attorney Peter Newman said young black men were being excluded from the jury pool. During the hearing, Assistant District Attorney Barry Feldman called four prosecutors, including Keahon and Wilutis, who testified they regularly saw young black men called for jury duty. Namm said he knew that wasn't true.

"My eyes were now literally wide open!" he wrote. "Having heard this absolutely incredible testimony by four prosecutors, sworn to uphold the law, it didn't take a great intellectual leap to realize that in the major offense bureau of the district attorney's office, as it was then constituted, the conviction of a defendant justified whatever means was necessary to insure that result, including manufactured testimony to fit the situation at hand."

For the moment, Namm wrote, he kept his feelings to himself as he ruled that Waters' rights weren't violated by the exclusion of young black men.

But Namm said he started paying more attention to what police and prosecutors did. "It turned my stomach," he said. "I knew things were going on in my courtroom that were wrong."

Then, in 1985, came the murder trials of Peter Corso and James Diaz.

 

Focus on police work

Corso was charged with the 1979 execution-style shooting of lawyer Archimedes Cervera. During the trial, it came out that homicide detectives filed hardly any investigative reports and that police had auctioned off the answering machine from Cervera's Brentwood office, where he had been shot in the head.

A jury acquitted Corso, and police and prosecutors blamed Namm for biasing jurors against them. Namm said the case failed because of shoddy police work. Corso later pleaded guilty to a cocaine charge, and during that plea declined to contest Perini's assertion that he committed the Cervera murder.

Soon afterward came the trial of Diaz, a Port Jefferson Station man charged with raping and stabbing Maureen Negus, 35, to death in her home in the hamlet in 1984.

Detectives said Diaz confessed to them, telling them that he threw the knife in the woods behind her house -- and they had found such a knife in the woods. Detectives said he initialed crime scene photos.

But Diaz refused to sign a written confession.

By the time of the trial, it came out that police failed to recover the actual murder weapon, which Negus' estranged husband found 10 months later in the basement just 15 feet from where she had been killed. And defense attorney Paul Gianelli called a handwriting expert who testified that the photos were initialed by someone who was righthanded. Diaz was a lefty.

But Feldman, again the prosecutor, called a jailhouse informant, Joseph Pistone, who said Diaz confessed to him and that he saw Diaz practicing writing righthanded.

Pistone's testimony shocked both Namm and Gianelli, because neither he nor detectives had said anything like that during pretrial hearings. In his book, Namm recalls that he angrily told Feldman, "If this defendant is guilty, I want him convicted. But by God, if he is not guilty of this charge, he should not be convicted, and it is not important enough to have perjurers come into this court to ensure that somebody is convicted of murder."

While the jury deliberated, Namm said a voice from Feldman's office shouted, "You lose, Stu!" as he walked to his car, which he found had been keyed. That's when he wrote Cuomo, he said, finding it intolerable that law enforcement would try to intimidate a judge.

Three days later, the jury acquitted Diaz of all charges.

Feldman, now a defense attorney, did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

The rest of Namm's term, which included the state investigative panel's hearings and report, featured open hostility by prosecutors toward Namm, he said. Finally, in 1992, the Democratic Party, led by Namm's former law partner, Dominic Baranello, declined to nominate him for re-election. At the time, Baranello denied the move was related to Namm's criticism of Suffolk law enforcement.

 

Praise for the judge

Namm moved to North Carolina days before his term ended. More than two decades later, some still admire what he did.

"It brought back a lot of memories that got my blood boiling," Gianelli said after reading the book. "Historically, I think it's correct. He paid a dear price for stating what he thought was going on."

Michael Ahern, then a Legal Aid Society attorney who is now in private practice, recalled Namm dismissing a case after a pretrial hearing against a client charged with burglary whom detectives had hung on a fence by his handcuffs, then knocked his teeth out.

"Judge Namm was a good man," Ahern said. "He was a good judge."

Others praised him but weren't willing to do so publicly. "I still have to practice in this county," one lawyer said.

Namm's former adversaries don't recall him as fondly.

"We were very friendly," Mazzei said. "I tried a lot of murders in front of him. He treated me like gold. But all of a sudden, he changed. He started to see the KGB in the bushes. He became extremely bizarre, with everyone."

Henry, who became a judge after he was district attorney, declined to criticize Namm.

"He didn't care for me, for some reason or another," Henry said. "It was probably political, nothing personal. I wish him well, and I hope his book is a success. I hold no animosity toward him or anybody."

Henry wouldn't address any of the events Namm described. "My memory is not so good, and I don't want to misspeak," he said.

For Namm, the moral of his story is that elected trial judges are too compromised by politics to speak out against injustices they see.

"What happened in Suffolk County happened because trial judges are elected in the political system," he said. His fellow judges wouldn't get involved because they were worried about the need to get re-elected, he said. And after how his tenure ended, he said they were right to be worried.

From his home in North Carolina, Namm said he reads about law enforcement in Suffolk. He noted a recent Newsday story describing $30 million in settlements with plaintiffs who claimed police misconduct in Nassau and Suffolk since 2002, and another that said many Suffolk detectives will soon make more than $200,000 a year.

"I hope they're doing a better job now than they were then," he said.

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