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Suit claims police and prosecutorial misconduct led to wrongful murder conviction

Shawn Lawrence with his wife, Alicia Lawrence, in

Shawn Lawrence with his wife, Alicia Lawrence, in court in Riverhead on Feb. 15, 2018. Credit: Randee Daddona

A former North Amityville man whose second-degree murder conviction was vacated because of police and prosecutorial misconduct has filed a federal suit against Suffolk County, claiming misconduct that was far more extensive than had previously been known.

When state Supreme Court Justice William Condon threw out the case against Shawn Lawrence, 45, in February 2018, he said the extent of law enforcement's rule-breaking was "absolutely stunning." Condon found that police and prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence favorable to Lawrence and misled the defense about whether it existed.

Lawrence's malicious prosecution suit against the county and six homicide detectives says police had four suspects that two of the surviving victims in the January 2010 ambush shooting had identified as being involved in the crime. But police not only ignored those suspects, they and prosecutors hid or destroyed evidence of those suspects from the defense, Condon ruled.

The suit said police harassed, arrested and ultimately beat one of the shooting victims to get him to falsely testify that Lawrence was a shooter.

The Suffolk County attorney's office, which also represents the detectives, did not respond to requests for comment. Prosecutors involved in the case were not sued because the law gives them immunity for their actions.

Lawrence was convicted of second-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder for a January 2010 shooting in North Amityville. James Terry, 44, of North Amityville, was killed. Lawrence had served 6 years of a 75-years-to-life prison sentence when the charges were thrown out.

Witnesses said four shooters all were about 5 feet, 6 inches tall. Lawrence, who is 6-foot-4, has always said he was home that night with his now wife.

"It's been an ordeal," said his attorney, Julia Kuan of Manhattan. "All of a sudden he gets snatched up and accused of this, out of nowhere. The entire criminal proceedings were so rigged against him. It's crazy that there were so many other suspects they should have gone after."

One of the other shooting victims, David Hodges, couldn't speak after getting shot in the head, but using hand gestures he identified another patient in Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center and a man visiting him as shooters, according to the suit and other court papers. Det. Thomas Walsh, the lead investigator, got a surveillance video of Hodges pointing out the two men, the suit said.

But police and prosecutors never divulged that to the defense. Instead, then Assistant District Attorney Glenn Kurtzrock claimed Hodges was too incapacitated to communicate. The video, meanwhile, disappeared.

Detectives by then were looking for a shooter known as "Zig," and believed that Lawrence went by the nickname "Ziggy." Even though his height made him an unlikely suspect, the suit said detectives began pressuring others into saying Lawrence did it.

One of those pressured was the other survivor of the ambush, Ralph Council, the suit said.

Detectives began showing up at his house, pulling his car over and even arresting him until he finally told detectives what they wanted to hear — that "Ziggy" pulled the trigger and Lawrence was Ziggy, the suit said.

But after Lawrence was arrested in 2012, Council recanted. According to the suit, police responded by attacking Council at a gas station and arresting him on false charges of assault.

"Beaten and battered and completely worn down, Council agreed to provide the false testimony against [Lawrence] that the police and prosecutors wanted," the suit said, in return for a favorable plea bargain on his assault charge.

Before trial, the suit said, Assistant District Attorney Laura Newcombe visited Council multiple times to make sure he stuck to his story. And at trial, the suit said Kurtzrock lied to the jury in his closing argument that Council got nothing for his testimony.

The suit listed other evidence improperly withheld by Kurtzrock, Newcombe and another prosecutor who had handled the case, Robert Biancavilla. Condon later found that prosecutors had withheld 45 items of evidence from the defense that should have been turned over under what is known as the Brady rule, which generally requires prosecutors to give defendants evidence favorable to them.

The suit recounted numerous other cases in which Kurtzrock and Biancavilla were accused of withholding evidence. Kurtzrock's attorney declined to comment, and Biancavilla did not respond to a request for comment.

One such case ended Kurtzrock's career as a prosecutor when the defense attorney realized it mid-trial and brought it to the court's attention. Several other murder cases fell apart and all of Kurtzrock's cases are still under review by District Attorney Timothy Sini's office.

The suit said Sini's predecessor, Thomas Spota, was "deliberately indifferent" to misconduct and ran his office "more like a criminal enterprise than a district attorney's office."

It was Sini's office that urged Condon to dismiss the charges against Lawrence. A spokeswoman said that showed the current administration's "commitment to the highest ethical standards."

She did not respond to questions about Newcombe, who is still a homicide prosecutor in the office.

The suit, which seeks $17 million in damages, says Lawrence's arrest and conviction damaged relationships with his family, and forced him to miss his son's birth, first steps and other milestones.

"He cried each time his son's birthday came around …," the suit said. "Even now, [Lawrence] is only beginning to get to know his son."

Despite his innocence, the suit says Lawrences is still recognized in public and called a murderer.

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