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Arson trial of Central Islip firefighters delayed over evidence issue

An arson trial of two Central Islip firefighters faltered Monday before it could get started after the judge in the case ordered prosecutors to turn over evidence apparently favorable to the defense that they had withheld for months

State Supreme Court Justice John Collins denied a defense request for a mistrial, but his displeasure with Suffolk prosecutors was clear and he sent jurors home from Riverhead without hearing opening statements in the trial of Weldon Drayton Jr., 34, of Brentwood, and Stephen Hernandez, 25, of Central Islip. Drayton is also a suspended Suffolk police officer.

At issue were several facts contained in paperwork defense attorneys received Friday that they said should have been disclosed months ago. Under what is known as the Brady rule, prosecutors generally are required to turn over evidence favorable to the defense as soon as they are aware of it.

Failure to comply with the Brady rule plagued the latter years of former District Attorney Thomas Spota's administration, resulting in murder cases against more than a half dozen defendants falling apart. Spota's successor, Timothy Sini, pledged that his office would be different.

"There's not an issue that's more important than creating a culture of compliance," Sini said last year. Following legal rules such as Brady not only is the ethical thing to do, but also makes convictions less vulnerable to appeal, he said then. Sini did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

In this case, Collins seemed unimpressed by arguments from Assistant District Attorney Andrew Weiss — chief of Sini's Public Integrity Bureau — that the withheld evidence was not covered by the Brady rule.

"Despite all the doubletalk you just put on the record, I cannot fathom a situation where an experienced prosecutor would not turn this over to the defense," Collins told Weiss. He added later, "I cannot fathom a theory under which the defense was not entitled to that material as quickly as possible."

Hernandez' attorney, Steve Politi of Central Islip, said his co-counsel, Caroline Mayrhofer of Hauppauge, recognized the importance of the material, which fell into two broad categories.

First, he said the defense should have been notified that two other charged firefighters who are cooperating with prosecutors have been re-arrested on other charges.

Second, Politi said a detective's notes suggest that surveillance video at the firehouse doesn't show the defendants taking the actions that witnesses claim they did, such as filling bottles with gasoline or changing clothes. The defendants are accused of setting fires to abandoned homes so they could be among the first to help put them out.

The two cooperating firefighters are Alfredo Laureano and Jonathan Moore, Politi said. Laureano was charged in January in Nassau with third-degree criminal possession of a weapon and other charges, pleaded guilty and will have the charge dismissed if he stays out of trouble for a period of time, Politi said. Collins called that a "surprising disposition" for someone who was awaiting sentencing on his arson plea.

Moore was arrested twice last year, both times charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. Moore also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in jail, Politi said.

Collins said not only should the defense have been notified, but he should have been, too.

"Did you inform the court that he [Laureano] was arrested for a felony while out on my dime?" Collins asked Weiss, noting that he had let Laureano remain free without bail.

"No, your honor," Weiss replied.

Collins asked Weiss to produce the videos and the court paperwork for Laureano and Moore, but Weiss had none of it with him in court. Weiss said the videos are "legally useless" because they do not have time stamps on them, but Collins said the detective's notes refer to specific times on the video.

"It's puzzling to me," Collins said of the discrepancy.

"This explanation, it makes no sense," Politi said later. "We're entitled to this video, because it's exculpatory."

Politi and Drayton's attorney, Stephen McCarthy of Manhattan, asked for a mistrial, but Collins said  that was premature. He said he would hear again from the defense on Wednesday.

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