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Quality of tape recording at issue in murder case

A tape recording on which Nassau County prosecutors say a murder suspect is heard trying to hire an undercover officer to kill the key witness in his case could be thrown out Wednesday if a judge rules that its quality is too poor to play for a jury.

The 30-minute tape includes a conversation between murder suspect Harpal Hira and the undercover officer, who was wearing a wire while visiting Hira at the Nassau County Correctional Center in June. Hira is in jail on charges of fatally stabbing his mother-in-law and seriously injuring his estranged wife at his twin sons' birthday party in August 2008.

Hira's lawyer said the recorded conversation is nearly impossible to hear.

"The tape is about as reliable as the professional snitch at the center of their case," said Hira's lawyer, Michael DerGarabedian of Rockville Centre, alluding to the jailhouse informant who prosecutors say tipped them off to Hira's alleged plans.

Prosecutor Martin Meaney agreed that the acoustics in the jail's visiting room are "horrible" and that the tape is difficult to hear. He said he will leave it up to acting State Supreme Court Justice William Donnino to decide whether the tape recording is too poor.

This is the second time in recent months that the quality of a police tape made of a suspect in a major case has been questioned. In October a judge tossed out what prosecutors said was a full videotaped confession by suspect Caleb Lacey admitting to setting a fire that killed four of his neighbors in Lawrence, because the tape quality was poor.

Hira, 35, of Hicksville, is charged in two separate cases. The first charges him with the murder of his mother-in-law, Meena Kohli, 54, and the attempted murder of his estranged wife, Ritika Hira, 25. The second charges him with criminal solicitation for allegedly trying to hire a hit man to kill the key witness in the first case - his sister-in-law, whom prosecutors have not named.

Under the law, it is legal for prosecutors to send an investigator to the jail to ask a prisoner about a crime, as long as it's not the same crime he already has been charged with and for which he already has retained a lawyer, attorneys on both sides of the case said.

The evidence gathered by the investigator in the second case cannot be used against the defendant in the first, and the two cases therefore cannot be joined in court. The only exception would be if the defendant asks to have the cases joined, which is something DerGarabedian says he is considering.

Whichever way Donnino rules, Meaney said the undercover officer will be allowed to testify about what he says Hira told him.

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