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Judge cites jury misconduct, tosses Town of Oyster Bay employee's convictions

Salvatore Cecere arrives at the Nassau County Courthouse

Salvatore Cecere arrives at the Nassau County Courthouse on Sept. 20, 2018, in Mineola. His new trial is set for October 2019. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A judge has tossed a Town of Oyster Bay employee’s corruption convictions after finding misconduct during jury deliberations in November tainted the highway maintenance supervisor’s right to a fair trial.

State Supreme Court Justice Charles Wood wrote in a ruling Friday that Salvatore Cecere’s defense team showed after a hearing “that improper conduct during jury deliberation prejudiced a substantial right of the defendant.”

The Nassau County jury had convicted Cecere, 52, of West Sayville, of misdemeanor charges of official misconduct and theft of services.

The panel found by its verdict that Cecere illegally diverted Oyster Bay resources to help his uncle’s friend with a sidewalk repair.

The jury also acquitted Cecere’s uncle, former town Public Works commissioner Frank Antetomaso, 79, of Massapequa, of the same charges.

“The court recognized that Sal Cecere did not receive a fair trial,” defense attorneys Joseph Ferri and Craig Rosasco said in a statement.

They added that a “rogue juror” violated his oath and exposed other panelists on the “closely divided jury” to “poisonous arguments.”

The case was the first to go to trial after Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas took aim at what she has said was “pervasive corruption” in Oyster Bay government, launching a long-term investigation that led to three indictments ensnaring a handful of people with town ties.

Former Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto pleaded guilty to corruption charges July 26 as a result, admitting to a felony and a misdemeanor in a plea deal that included no jail time or probation but stripped him of his law license.

Singas spokeswoman Miriam Sholder said Monday that prosecutors are reviewing the judge's decision in Cecere's case.

In his ruling, the judge found that a juror referred to his own property’s sidewalk tripping hazard due to a tree problem during deliberations.

That same juror testified in a June hearing that he didn’t bring up the problem during jury selection, but “brought to the jury room my experience with how people deal with trees” and considered himself “fair and impartial.”

Wood wrote in his decision that photos of that juror’s home closely resembled the evidence in the case.

“Of significant note, the photographs of the tree and sidewalk in front of one juror’s house might as well have been the ones introduced by the People in their case against defendants Cecere and Antetomaso,” the judge found.

Wood said the juror in question used his personal experience to introduce “outside information of a significantly similar nature” in order “to undermine at least two defense witnesses.”

The district attorney’s office had opposed the defense’s motion to vacate Cecere’s convictions, arguing trial evidence proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and that the defendant sought to “invade the sacred jury deliberative process.”

But Wood held the hearing into potential jury misconduct after finding “significant questions” existed about whether the trial was fair after a female panelist contacted the defense the day after the verdict and made allegations about various improprieties.

That juror wrote in an affidavit that she “could not sleep” after surrendering her “sincere belief” that Cecere was “not guilty.”

The defense also had claimed at least two jurors said during deliberations that Cecere “did not testify because he knew he was guilty” — calling this a violation of his right to remain silent.

Wood scheduled Cecere’s new trial for Oct. 22.

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