Judge refuses to toss Spota-McPartland convictions; defendants won't get new trials
A federal judge has refused to overturn the convictions of former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and a key aide, rejecting the defense bid for a new trial and its request to argue that a key government witness committed perjury.
Spota and Christopher McPartland, the chief of the DA’s anti-corruption unit, were each convicted in December of helping to mastermind the cover-up of a beating by former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke of a heroin addict who stole a duffel bag from the chief’s department SUV.
U.S. District Judge Joan Azrack, in a 61-page decision released over the weekend, refused the defense request for an evidentiary hearing, saying that both the jury and she found the testimony of the key government witness — former Suffolk Police Lt. James Hickey — credible, and that Spota and McPartland did or could have raised at the trial all those issues.
"A close examination of Defendants’ perjury and Brady claims reveal they are meritless … too speculative and implausible to warrant a hearing," Azrack wrote in her ruling " … The Defendants do not have plausible claims that Hickey perjured himself. As such a post-trial hearing is not warranted."
Hickey, the commanding officer of the Suffolk Police Department's criminal intelligence division, testified at the trial that he was part of an "inner circle" of the department that also included Burke, Spota and McPartland.
Azrack argued that attorneys for Spota and McPartland initially had requested that she overturn their clients' convictions on the alleged grounds that Hickey had committed perjury. But more recently, Spota and McPartland had switched to the argument that they needed the evidentiary hearing to show that Hickey had perjured himself in order to get a new trial, Azrack said.
The judge also dismissed Spota and McPartland’s claims that federal prosecutors knew that Hickey was committing perjury and failed to inform the defense.
"The defense conducted a vigorous and in-depth cross examination of Hickey, utilizing [the FBI agents’ notes on the case], Hickey’s attorneys, and Hickey himself, as well as [Hickey’s] medical records introduced at the trial," Azrack wrote. "Given the government’s disclosures and Hickey’s waiver of attorney-client privilege, the defense had an abundance of ammunition to use during cross-examination."
The judge wrote that the defense argued during the trial that Hickey was "a rampant liar" and attacked his credibility on multiple grounds, telling the jury that there were "10 reasons why Jim Hickey is not credible."
But the judge said that while Hickey, during his testimony, provided direct evidence of obstructive conduct by defendants, the government also called in multiple witnesses and had other pieces of evidence, including phone records and cellphone site data, that corroborated Hickey’s testimony against Spota and McPartland.
Spota’s attorney, Alan Vinegrad did not immediately return phone calls for comment.
McPartland’s attorney, Larry Krantz, declined to comment on the decision.
John Marzulli, spokesman for Eastern District federal prosecutors Nicole Boeckmann, Lara Treinis Gatz, Justina Geraci, and Michael Maffei, declined to comment.
The judge could next set a sentencing date for Spota, 79, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 55, of Northport. They were both convicted of witness tampering, conspiracy to tamper with witnesses, obstruction of justice, and being an accessory after the fact.
Spota and Burke each face up to 20 years in prison, but would most likely get less under federal sentencing guidelines.
In the run-up to the sentencing, both defense attorneys and prosecutors are expected to file presentencing briefs on potential sentences for Spota, and McPartland. The attorneys and the judge are also expected to take into account a presentencing memorandum suggesting appropriate sentences prepared by federal probation officers.
Previously scheduled sentencings of Spota and McPartland have been postponed twice — once because of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and another time at the request of an attorney, who was busy with another unrelated trial.
Burke, who resigned from the police department after federal prosecutors began to investigate the prisoner's beating, served a sentence of 46 months in federal prison for conviction on obstruction of justice and violating the victim’s, Christopher Loeb’s, civil rights by beating him while handcuffed at a precinct.