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Judge cites pandemic in tossing indictments against alleged Chilean burglary ring members

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, with County Executive

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, with County Executive Laura Curran, speaks in March about a burglary ring targeting North Shore homes. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A Nassau judge cited "chaos caused by the pandemic" while tossing indictments this week against a trio of Chileans who prosecutors say are part of a ring that stole tens of thousands of dollars in property during North Shore home burglaries.

The jailed defendants didn’t have “a reasonable opportunity” to testify before the grand jury with one day’s notice from the Nassau district attorney’s office, after concerns about the coronavirus led authorities to halt inmate transports to court and stop jail visits, the rulings said.

“The interests of justice require that the defendant be allowed to exercise his statutory right to testify before the grand jury and he should not be penalized as a result of the chaos caused by the pandemic,” acting state Supreme Court Justice Felice Muraca wrote in his three decisions.

The judge gave prosecutors 30 days to seek new indictments against defendants William Medel-Perez, 23, Juan Hernandez-Rosas, 26, and Fabian Lopez-Catalan, 21. He also ordered the trio to be held at the Nassau jail without bail in the meantime.

Court officials said the indictments remain pending against two more co-defendants — Bayron Cruz-Palta, 27, and Amaro Rosas-Rosas, 23. Their attorneys didn’t file dismissal motions.

A spokeswoman for the Nassau district attorney’s office, Miriam Sholder, said Wednesday that prosecutors will present the cases involving the trio to another grand jury.

“These defendants are allegedly part of a criminal ring that sends Chileans to New York and other parts of the country for the sole purpose of burglarizing homes, including three allegedly here in Nassau County. They remain an extreme risk of flight, and we will continue to pursue all of their cases in the interest of justice,” she added.

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The defense attorneys who represent members of the trio said Wednesday that Muraca’s decisions were fair.

“I recognize the difficulty during this time but the judicial system and society as a whole would not benefit if the rights of those who are accused of crimes are denied because of a pandemic,” said Maureen McBride, the attorney for Medel-Perez.

Hernandez-Rosas’ attorney, Mitchell Barnett, said the issue concerned his client’s “fundamental right to testify.”

He added: “You can’t take away constitutional rights because of the pandemic."

Jeffrey Groder, who represents Lopez-Catalan, said he was gratified by a ruling that would allow his client to testify before a grand jury, if he chooses to.

“By the court’s decision, it is clear that the district attorney is not permitted to deprive him of that right unilaterally,” he also said.

In his rulings, Muraca wrote prosecutors, defense attorneys and jail officials “were left with few options” in mid-March on how to continue to do their jobs related to the case because of the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The jail had to safeguard the facility to prevent the virus's spread, prosecutors had to keep presenting cases to a grand jury and the defense task of representing jailed clients “suddenly became extremely difficult,” he said.

But Muraca added that “no matter how well-intentioned” prosecutors were, giving the defense one day’s notice of the grand jury presentation failed to give the accused a chance to appear and have reasonable time to consult with their attorneys about whether to testify.

The case previously attracted attention when a different judge ordered all five defendants to be held without bail during post-arrest arraignments before their indictments. Then only two faced charges for which bail could be set under legislation that went into effect in New York earlier this year.

The district attorney’s office has said the defendants admitted that their handler recruited them to burglarize New York homes while telling them the risk of jail was low because of the bail reform measures.

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