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Don't judge Thomas Spota for association with James Burke, lawyer tells jurors

Former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, left, and

Former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, left, and his attorney Alan Vinegrad on Oct. 30. Credit: James Carbone

Fathers and sons

"Wanting to help James Burke is not a crime," Alan Vinegrad, the attorney for Thomas Spota, told jurors during a summation of two or so hours on Thursday.

"Being a concerned professional parent," he said, referring to Spota, the former Suffolk district attorney, "and believing your professional child" he said, referring to Burke, the former Suffolk police chief of department, “ … is not a crime."

"He was a good cop," Vinegrad said of Burke, "and a bad cop, all rolled into one."

"But Tom Spota's fate in this case depends on you not judging him for his association with James Burke," Vinegrad said.

"The issue is not if Tom Spota had a blind spot," Vinegrad went on, "the issue is whether the government has proved beyond a reasonable doubt … that Tom Spota actually took actions with illegal intent and corruption as its goal."

At one point, Vinegrad read from positive recommendations in Burke's personnel file, which included a supervisor's note — writ large on the courtroom's big screen — that "neighbors were … on their front lawns cheering" as a result of a drug raid.

"I'm not here to defend James Burke," Vinegrad said, but a look at his personnel file shows"it is not completely the dark picture."

The act

Just as he promised jurors during his opening, Vinegrad slammed testimony from former Suffolk Det. Lt. James Hickey.

"You have only one witness, a witness whose testimony, under the law, must be considered with great care and caution," he told jurors. "You must, under the law, be skeptical of his testimony."

Vinegrad continued, "Your job is to say, ‘hold on, not so fast, is there an innocent’ ” reason for meetings, phone calls or other events described by Hickey.

"If one had to summarize Hickey, in one phrase," he said, "it would be, 'If you're going to lie, lie big,' because that's what Hickey did during this trial."

"All witnesses are not created equal," Vinegrad said in continuing his summation after a court break. "Hickey's version of events is contradicted over and over again."

"I submit to you that what Hickey did here … was what an actor does, to prepare and perform on a stage," Vinegrad said. "[The actor] memorizes, word for word, and when he gets on the stage he can say his lines, over and over again exactly."

"He can remember his lines and deliver them right on cue," Vinegrad told jurors, “ … but he made it look like he remembered it."

"He lied to get what he wanted. This man is skilled at the art of deception."

Inconsistencies

While Larry Krantz, the attorney for Christopher McPartland, Spota's former anti-corruption unit chief, on Wednesday had questioned Hickey's credibility and mental state, Vinegrad took a slightly different path — wailing away at inconsistencies between Hickey's testimony and that of other witnesses.

Vinegrad showed telephone records showing three phone calls, over four years, between Hickey and Spota.

"That absolutely puts to lie Hickey's relationship in Tom Spota's inner circle," Vinegrad said.

Vinegrad recalled testimony that Hickey had lent Spota a jacket when Spota needed one for a presentation.

“ … And that's proof?" Vinegrad asked.

"Because he lent him a jacket?!?"

"Are they serious?" he asked, turning as he did several times toward the prosecution table.

Vinegrad showed jurors a chart of times Hickey had entered the district attorney's office building in Hauppauge using a card swipe.

"Hickey was barely there!" Vinegrad exclaimed.

"The only person who testified that Hickey was in the inner circle was [pause] Hickey."

Vinegrad noted entries in Hickey's calendar, and instances when Hickey said a telephone call was made at one time during a meeting, where telephone records showed it was made at another.

"By his own account," Vinegrad said, "he could not have been present."

"He's just making stuff up as he goes along," Vinegrad said, arguing that Hickey did so out of self-interest when he sat down to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

"He had to do better," Vinegrad said, “ … He had to come up with more if he had any shot of staying out of prison."

The Loeb prosecution

"Tom Spota acted properly … from the beginning of the Loeb case until the end," Vinegrad said.

In early 2013, Loeb's attorney told an assistant district attorney, Spiros Moustakas, about the assault allegations. The attorney also asked the DA's office to negotiate a resolution to the charges, Moustakas testified.

"What did Tom do?" Vinegrad asked.

"Did he tell Mr. Moustakas to take the deal?"

"Did he do that to protect Burke?"

"He had this chance to just sweep this under the rug, right there in the palm of his hand," Vinegrad said.

"Did he do it?"

"No."

On seeking a special prosecutor

"Tom did want it, early," Vinegrad said.

"The government is obsessed with why the Queens DA office and not Nassau was selected," he continued, saying that while Suffolk had a history of prosecuting cases for Nassau, Nassau seldom reciprocated.

"It did not have to be the DA's office in the adjoining county," he said. "It is entirely understandable that you would not ask Nassau to do a big favor and so it went two counties over, to Queens."

Fear not

Over and over, Vinegrad told jurors Spota had nothing to do with obstruction, cover-up or any other government charges.

"Tom Spota did no such thing and not one of the government witnesses, none of them, said he did such a thing," Vinegrad said.

"There is no evidence — none — that Tom had anything to do … with that story," he said of allegations that Spota had a hand in concocting Burke's story to cover up the assault.

"Tom Spota did no such thing," he said — several times more.

Then, in rebutting testimony from Hickey and detectives that they feared retribution from Burke, Spota and McPartland if they didn't go along with the cover-up, Vinegrad said: "The fear of Tom Spota, let's just put that on the table, it is the most misleading allegation of all."

Vinegrad acknowledged testimony from Anthony Bombace and other detectives, who said kept quiet for years.

"Their fear," Vinegrad said, "their state of mind is no substitute for proof … the officers' state of mind is irrelevant."

Rebuttal

"If you believe what James Hickey told this courtroom," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Boeckmann told jurors Thursday, "there is no question that both defendants are guilty of each and every count in the indictment."

In a two-hour-plus rebuttal, Boeckmann — as did the defense lawyers — went first to the question of Hickey and his credibility.

"How do you know about all of the things in James Hickey's past?" Boeckmann asked.

"He sat there and he told you, in a public courtroom that was full every day," she said.

"He understood that if he was going to come in here and testify, he needed to tell everything … ”

"I didn't pick James Hickey," Boeckmann said.

"James Hickey wasn't my friend," she said, noting that she had never gone to dinner, played golf or traded calls with him.

"They did," she said, pointing to the defense table where Spota and McPartland sat with their attorneys. "They did."

"He's their guy, not my guy," she said.

"They picked him," she went on. "I'm stuck with the witness."

Memories

"This is a man with a good memory, who remembers this, because this was his life for three years," Boeckmann said of Hickey, pushing back at defense arguments that alcoholism and a stay for an "altered mental state" at a hospital had impacted Hickey's recall ability.

"It broke him," she said. "It hospitalized him."

At work

"They say we didn't do our homework," Boeckmann said, batting back at defense criticism leveled at the quality of the prosecution's case.

"We gave you 30 witnesses. … Do you really think we wouldn't do our homework?"

"That we would put him up there to testify against a district attorney and the head of government corruption without every piece of corroboration we could find?" she asked.

The case is slated to resume Monday, when U.S. District Court Judge Joan Azrack is expected to give instructions to jurors before they begin deliberations.

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