A federal judge has thrown out a 10-year-old Suffolk County murder conviction, ruling that the trial was mishandled by the judge, prosecutor, defense lawyer and appellate attorney.
U.S. District Judge John Gleeson last week gave the Suffolk district attorney's office 45 days to decide whether to retry Eric Williams, now 36, of North Babylon, in the death of Candice Arena, 18, of Dix Hills.
Williams was convicted in 2003 of shooting at the car Arena was in while chasing it at high speed on Deer Park Avenue in 2001, causing it to go out of control into a train bridge in Deer Park.
The key witness against Williams was his then-girlfriend, Rebecca Madigan. She testified that Williams fired the shot into the car ahead of them; Williams testified she fired the gun.
During questioning at trial by Assistant District Attorney Janet Albertson, Madigan said, "He said that this isn't the first time that he's killed somebody. That he's done it before."
Gleeson called that testimony "beyond the pale," noting it improperly suggested Williams had a tendency to kill.
Defense attorney Phil Murphy of Bay Shore immediately objected and asked for a mistrial. Albertson told State Supreme Court Justice Michael Mullen that she intended to show that Madigan -- a military veteran like Williams -- had no idea whether Williams has killed before.
Mullen first instructed the jury to disregard the remark because he had no idea if it could be true. Murphy objected, saying it left open the possibility that it was true. Mullen then more clearly told the jury to ignore that remark.
Gleeson said Mullen's instructions were inadequate, but then Murphy compounded the error by calling attention to it when he questioned Williams on the stand. And then Albertson referred to the stricken testimony in what Gleeson called an "outrageously improper" closing argument, to which Murphy did not object.
Gleeson also criticized Williams' attorney in the state appellate case, Bruce Barket of Garden City, for not arguing that Murphy had been ineffective.
Mullen sentenced Williams to 30 years to life in prison.
Murphy did not respond to requests for comment.
Robert Clifford, spokesman for the district attorney, said the office hasn't decided whether to appeal the decision and declined to comment further.
Barket said the verdict should have been overturned by state appellate courts. "Should I have been harsher on trial counsel [in the appeal]?" Barket said. "Reasonable people can differ. . . . In the end, we're glad for Mr. Williams and his family."
At the time, prosecutors said that on May 15, 2001, Williams pursued a 1998 Nissan Maxima after realizing Melissa Weiner, then 19, who owed him drug money, was inside.
The gunshot hit no one, but caused driver Melissa Singh, 20, to lose control. Arena was thrown from the car in the crash.