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Coronavirus delays justice for crime victims and their families

Ashley Villatoro, holds a photo of her mother

Ashley Villatoro, holds a photo of her mother Lissette Jimenez who was killed in a crash on the Meadowbrook Parkway in February, 2020.   Credit: Howard Schnapp

Sometimes Ashley Villatoro expects her mother to call and check on her during the coronavirus pandemic as she juggles raising her 6-month-old son and working part-time at a coffee shop.

But then reality hits the South Hempstead woman as she continues to mourn the death of her mother, former NYU Winthrop Hospital certified nursing assistant Lissette Jimenez, 39, in a February crash on the Meadowbrook State Parkway.

“My mom’s really not here with me. She really is not going to give me a call today, tomorrow. She’s not going to be like ‘Hey Ashley, how are you? Do you need anything?’” said Villatoro, 18.

She and her family are among grieving relatives of crime victims — along with victims themselves — who have had a longer wait for justice with New York’s court system  handling only essential and emergency proceedings during the public health emergency for the past few weeks.

Those impacted by crime say the delay has added a new dimension to their frustration and suffering. Families mourning violent crime victims while confined to their residences during the pandemic say their homes become emotional hothouses where reminders of their lost loved ones constantly surround them.

At the same time, they are coping with the uncertainty of not knowing exactly when they’ll again have to confront those accused of the crimes in court.

It may happen sooner for some than others. The state's chief administrative judge said in a memo Tuesday that starting next week, the courts could begin to hold virtual proceedings, by videoconference or phone only, in felony cases that aren't emergency matters.

Following Jimenez's death, in early March motorist Nicole Pollock, 27, of Freeport, pleaded not guilty after an indictment charged her with offenses including aggravated vehicular homicide, manslaughter, assault, drunken driving and drug-impaired driving in connection with the crash. The wreck also left Jimenez’s 8-year-old son with a broken arm.

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“Every day you just expect this to be over and then expect the courts to open up,” said Villatoro, whose family was in Nassau County Court for Pollock’s arraignment before most court proceedings came to a halt.

“You know when you feel like there’s just been a big pause in your life and that’s it? It definitely feels like that,” she said.

Brendan Brosh, a spokesman for Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, said more than two dozen crime victim advocates from his office are working remotely during the pandemic to do outreach and assistant district attorneys are speaking regularly with crime victims.

“We know that justice delayed is justice denied, but we are working to help our victims during this public health crisis,” he added.

The delay in court proceedings also can be difficult for the accused, said Mineola defense attorney Dennis Lemke.

He represents Pollock, along with one of seven Long Beach teenagers accused of gang assault following the fatal stabbing of 16-year-old Oceanside High School student Khaseen Morris in September — clients he said “want to move forward” with their cases.

Since last year, Morris’ family has been diligent about attending court conferences for the Long Beach teenagers and for Tyler Flach, 19, of Lido Beach, who’s charged with killing Morris in the afterschool brawl.

All of the defendants previously pleaded not guilty. They have no court dates scheduled for at least the next several weeks.

In the meantime, members of the three-generation Morris household have been observing stay-at-home advisories in their Oceanside residence as photos of Khaseen remind them how he would have been able to lift their spirits during this challenging time.

“We’re together but I think we’re all feeling it a little extra right now,” said Keyanna Morris, 30, the victim’s oldest sister.

Morris said she thinks about how Khaseen would be preparing to graduate high school, and how his presence is missed when the family gathers on the couch to watch movies.

The Oceanside woman said her late brother’s belongings remain as he left them and sometimes family members will take a quiet moment alone and just lay on his bed.

While the court delay has been a reprieve of sorts, Morris said her family knows it is only temporary as they wait to see if the criminal prosecutions will give them any closure.

“It’s just like pending,” she said.

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