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Baffled by recusal in Nassau cops' case

George R. Peck, Nassau County Court judge. (Nov.

George R. Peck, Nassau County Court judge. (Nov. 17, 2003) Credit: Rick Kopstein

A second Nassau judge's decision to recuse himself from a high-profile police corruption case last week -- this time without explanation -- has lawyers and experts speculating about what happened, and how difficult it will be to find an impartial judge to hear the case.

On Thursday, after overseeing the case for about two months, Judge George Peck granted a prosecutor's request that he recuse himself from the case, cutting her off even before she could state her reasons for asking him to do so.

Peck said in court that he would not disclose his reasons.

Bruce Barket, a lawyer for one of the three defendants, said it was a complete turnaround from a conference he had in the case just two days earlier.

"We were stunned," said Barket, of Garden City. "On Tuesday he was setting a trial date, and on Thursday, he was no longer fit to preside over the case."

Peck said in court that the case would be returned to an administrative judge for assignment to a third judge.

A call to Peck's chambers Friday was not returned. A spokesman for Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice declined to comment on the case.

In May, Judge John Kase, the first judge assigned to the police corruption case, said in court that he would recuse himself because he has been friends with former Nassau Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey for several years.

Mulvey headed the police department at the time when the three defendants in the case -- retired Second Deputy Commissioner William Flanagan, retired Deputy Chief of Patrol John Hunter and retired Seventh Precinct Squad Deputy Cmdr. Alan Sharpe -- allegedly took part in the misconduct.

The three are accused of conspiring to quash Zachary Parker's arrest on charges that he stole about $11,000 worth of electronic equipment from John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore in May 2009. Parker, 20, of Merrick, the son of a police benefactor, pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary and third-degree criminal possession of stolen property charges and was sentenced to 5 years' probation last month.

Experts said judges are not required to give a reason when they recuse themselves from cases, but added that an unexplained recusal does raise questions.

"If it was something very blatant, the judge would have gotten off the case immediately," said Richard Klein, a criminal-law professor at Touro Law School. "It does lead one to think that something happened during the pendency of the case that led the judge to think he was now impartial."

Barket said he is exploring his legal options, and may request a hearing on the reason for Peck's recusal, ask the judge to place his reasons on record, or ask him to reconsider.

Experts say recusals are rare, and having two judges recuse themselves from the same case is almost unheard of.

Even in cases involving defendants who are police officials, who may have testified in criminal cases before local judges, recusals are not common, experts said.

"I can't think of a natural reason why just because it involves police officers, that would lead to a massive recusal," said Rachel Barkow, who teaches criminal law at New York University Law School. "Even in cases where a police officer is not the defendant, one is often testifying."

Experts differ as to whether a judge could be brought in from outside the county to preside over the case. Some say that would send a poor message about the objectivity of local judges. Others say it may be time to look farther afield.

"If a third judge recuses himself, they will certainly look outside the county," said Jim Cohen, a criminal-law professor at Fordham Law School.

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