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Suffolk judge's 'hostility' leads to plea reversal

Citing a Suffolk judge's hostility toward a defendant, a state appeals court has vacated the man's 2004 guilty plea to manslaughter and attempted murder, ruling that a coercive environment led him to admit to the charges.

The appeals court, in a sharply critical decision, said County Court Judge Gary Weber created an environment that made Alberto Santiago's Oct. 6, 2004, guilty plea involuntary.

Nine jurors already had been seated when Santiago - under pressure from Weber, according to his attorney - pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and second-degree attempted murder in the 2003 shooting death of James Garcia, 25, of East Quogue. Weber and Garcia had argued at a Water Mill house.

Santiago, now 35, of Providence, R.I., is serving a 14-year sentence at Five Points Correctional Facility in upstate Romulus.

"We count on the justice system to do the right thing and this reversal was the right thing," attorney Barry Kamen of Stony Brook, who filed Santiago's appeal, said Wednesday.

Cheryl Zimmer, a Suffolk courts spokeswoman, said Weber, who also is an acting State Supreme Court justice, could not be reached for comment.

The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, Second Department, in Brooklyn, said in its March 2 decision that "the remarks of the trial court throughout the proceedings in this case . . . as well as its hostility and bias toward the defendant, created a coercive environment which rendered the defendant's plea involuntary."

At one point, Santiago and Weber discussed a pre-trial hearing, court papers show.

Using a phrase made famous by the television comedy "Seinfeld," Weber told Santiago: "Yadda yadda yadda. All right."

Weber also said if Santiago went to trial, " . . . if you lose on these two counts here, you ain't getting out of jail for a long time to come."

Robert Clifford, a spokesman for District Attorney Thomas Spota, said that Santiago "will return to Suffolk County Court and the case will be put on the calendar."

Clifford said Santiago will face the original indictment charges: two second-degree murder counts in Garcia's shooting and one second-degree attempted murder count in the shooting of another man, Joan Rojas, who was also at the Water Mill house. Santiago's bail status was not immediately clear Wednesday.

Richard Klein, professor of criminal law at Touro Law School in Central Islip, said the appeals court's decision was "extremely unusual."

Klein said some judges who try to speed up cases to relieve backlogs can "get involved in plea negotiations in ways that can be unseemly. The [U.S.] Supreme Court has held that for a guilty plea to be constitutional, it must be voluntary."

In 2004, Weber drew criticism from an advocacy group, Parents for Megan's Law, which said he fell asleep during a sexual abuse trial.

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