A Queens judge will have to decide whether to dismiss a murder indictment against four men after prosecutors initially failed to disclose a crucial police ballistics report that defense attorneys say clears their clients.
Assistant District Attorney Karen Ross revealed the one-page police report in Queens State Supreme Court in May, after Judge Richard Buchter pushed her to re-examine the evidence. The case had been in the midst of jury selection.
Ross contacted police, who discovered the previously undisclosed ballistics report, court records show. According to the court transcript, Buchter said the failure to disclose the material to defense attorneys violated legal rules requiring prosecutors to turn over evidence that might favor the defense; he declared a mistrial -- which is not often seen. Ross insisted the nondisclosure wasn't such a violation.
The case involves Nathaniel Newsom, 27, Willie Trotty, 27, Trevor Bowen, 23, and Lance Hamilton, 25, all indicted in the Aug. 5, 2010, slaying of suspected pimp Damian Champbell on 109th Avenue in Jamaica.
But a ballistics report showed that the gun used in the killing was used two days earlier by suspect Shameik Corbett, 24, in a different attempted murder and robbery, court records show. Corbett is serving an 18-year sentence after pleading guilty to manslaughter and attempted murder in a different case.
Defense attorneys John A. Scarpa Jr., who represents Bowen, and Warren M. Silverman, who represents Hamilton, contend in court papers that the ballistics report helps exonerate at least some defendants in the current murder case, particularly since they told police Corbett shot Champbell.
Ross told the court that the defendants and Corbett were all part of the same gang, which swapped communal weapons. In an email, Queens defense attorney Frank Kelly -- who is representing Corbett in the case for which he was convicted -- denied that his client was involved in the Champbell homicide and said that prosecutors also had cleared him in the killing.
Court filings indicate that prosecutors intend to prove their case with statements allegedly made by at least one of the defendants that he was involved in the shooting, as well as with circumstantial evidence about gang membership of the four young men and their involvement in other crimes.
Buchter's mistrial ruling sent shock waves through the Queens courthouse where mistrials on such grounds are rare. "The story went through the courthouse, the defense bar and [district attorney] office like wildfire," Silverman said.
Scarpa said the mishandling of the reports was shocking because it was so blatant.
In court filings in mid-June, Queens prosecutors said their office hadn't willfully or intentionally tried to suppress evidence. Prosecutor Ross disclosed all material in her possession and the case shouldn't be dismissed, the court filings stated.
Buchter will hold a hearing after Labor Day to decide whether the violation of evidence rules warrants a dismissal of the indictment, something legal experts say is rare. Until then, the case is on hold, with all defendants remaining in jail.