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Suffolk DA asks for murder charge dismissal after misconduct

Shawn Lawrence appears at state Supreme Court in

Shawn Lawrence appears at state Supreme Court in Riverhead. Credit: James Carbone

The Suffolk district attorney’s office, in a motion filed Monday evening, said charges against a North Amityville man convicted of murder should be dismissed because witnesses against him are too unreliable and prosecutorial misconduct took place before the 2015 trial.

This would be the fifth Suffolk murder defendant in the past year to have murder charges dismissed at least in part because of prosecutorial misconduct. Three prosecutors handled the case at various times under former District Attorney Thomas Spota. The trial prosecutor was Glenn Kurtzrock, who was forced to resign last year because of misconduct in another case.

Shawn Lawrence, 44, was convicted of second-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder for a Jan. 12, 2010 shooting that ended the life of James Terry, 44, also of North Amityville. Lawrence was serving 75 years to life in prison until last month, when the judge who sentenced him became aware of the problems with the case and freed him.

Before dismissing the charges, state Supreme Court Justice William Condon last month asked both sides for motions on why he should do so. The prosecution’s motion, written by Assistant Distict Attorney Kerriann Kelly, was the first one to be filed.

In it, she wrote that “the prosecution of Shawn Lawrence has been fatally compromised as a result of both the diminished credibility of the trial witnesses and misconduct by the prosecution prior to trial.”

His trial lawyer, Joseph Hanshe of Sayville, said the prosecution of Lawrence is an example of an office that had lost its sense of right and wrong.

“They don’t care about justice,” Hanshe said of the prosecutors who handled this case. “They want to win.”

The shooting in this case, captured on surveillance video, showed four men approach a minivan in an apartment complex parking lot, fire into it and flee. In addition to Terry, two other men in the minivan were shot. David Hodges was left with severe brain damage and Ralph Council Jr., 49, suffered permanent back and leg injuries.

Two men were arrested. Allan McGhee, now 29, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter. He admitted he was angry with Hodges after taking food from Hodges’ plate at a party that included shrimp, to which he is allergic. Lawrence insisted he was innocent, went to trial and was convicted.

At the trial, Hanshe said Lawrence barely knew McGhee and was not at the party. He also noted that the video of the crime showed four men of roughly the same height. Lawrence, at 6 feet 4 inches, is almost a foot taller than McGhee.

The witnesses who identified Lawrence as a shooter were shaky even at the trial. One of them was Council, who told police Lawrence was a participant, recanted after Lawrence’s 2012 arrest and went with his original story at the trial. Kelly wrote that Council has been arrested several times since the trial, further damaging his credibility.

Another witness, James Jones, testified he had been up for 20 hours smoking crack and was waiting for a drug delivery when he saw the shooting. He recanted twice before the trial. Kelly wrote that Jones has returned to using drugs and been arrested since the trial, and Spota’s office paid him at least $4,000 to relocate after the trial because of concerns about his safety. All of that makes him unreliable now, she wrote.

Kelly also outlined the evidence not turned over to the defense. In all criminal cases, what is known as the Brady rule generally requires prosecutors to disclose evidence helpful to the defense.

Kelly wrote that the evidence not disclosed “includes witness accounts, information pertaining to other possible suspects, descriptions of other possible suspects that did not comport with the physical characteristics of Shawn Lawrence, handwritten notes, supplementary [police] reports, and information regarding compensation [of witnesses] for meals and housing.”

She also wrote that the defense never knew about a video from Good Samaritan Hospital. Another defense attorney, Susan Menu, said last month that it showed a person one witness identified as an uncharged shooter visiting one of the surviving victims.

Hanshe said Lawrence, who at the time of his arrest appeared to have left a criminal life behind and had a fulltime job, has been living with his wife and doing well since he was freed last month.

“He’s not an angel, by any stretch of the imagination, but he didn’t do this,” Hanshe said. “He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t do drugs. I think he’s on the right track.”

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