In a highly unusual move, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota has agreed to vacate two men's convictions for drug dealing and let them out of prison because of questions about the credibility of the arresting officer.
His office is also reviewing 100 more arrests by the officer who was in the now-disbanded Southampton Town Police street crimes unit, Spota said in a statement Friday.
The cases are both pending and closed and involve people not in custody.
"I have never seen anything like this in my whole career," said defense attorney Susan Menu, who represented both men in court.
Bernard Cooks, 31, of Southampton, and Mohammed Proctor, 36, of Riverhead, had been serving prison sentences for felony possession of a controlled substance. Both were taken to court in Riverhead on Wednesday and told they would be released.
Cooks, who had been sentenced to 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 years, had been in prison since Jan. 19 of last year. Proctor was sentenced to 2 to 4 years and had been incarcerated since Oct. 18 of last year, according to records.
Menu said both men were extremely grateful and saw the sudden shift in their fortunes as a chance to change their lives.
In his statement, Spota made it clear that dismissing the charges was difficult for his office, but that he was legally bound to do so after becoming aware of issues surrounding the officer. He and Menu declined to name the officer or describe those issues.
"The decision to release convicted drug dealers back into the community under these circumstances is not undertaken lightly and is made free from political consideration or favor, contrary to recent assertions made by former town and police officials," Spota said.
Former Southampton Police Chief James Overton, who retired last year, said of Spota's decision: "If he's trying to correct something wrong that was done, God bless him, that's what he's supposed to do."
The Southampton Town police department has been roiled in recent weeks after the sudden suspension of the former supervisor of the street crimes unit, Lt. James Kiernan, for an unspecified personnel matter. Days later, the district attorney's office seized police department personnel investigative files.
Police Chief William Wilson Jr., who disbanded the unit last summer because he said it lacked oversight, said Friday that he found the prisoner releases "disheartening." He said his office would cooperate fully with the district attorney.
"People are prosecuted for drug sales and put in prison, which is where they belong . . . However, there is a greater obligation that we have to ensure that everybody receives fair treatment," he said.
The chief also declined to name the officer because he is under investigation. "Over time," he said, "details will be abundantly clear."