The case against Robert Williams, the man accused of trying to kill more than a dozen police officers this month in the Bronx, could prove to be a major legal hurdle for New York City prosecutors and the NYPD.
That's because changes in state law have forced them to speed up the pretrial disclosure of evidence in criminal cases, making the workload in the Williams case especially challenging, law enforcement officials said.
Williams, who is charged with attempted murder and other offenses, is accused of shooting and injuring an NYPD officer sitting in a marked police van on Feb. 8, and a second officer, a lieutenant, when he walked into the 41st Precinct station house in the Bronx the next day and opened fire. Williams' attorney could not be reached for comment.
Many of the victims Williams is charged with shooting or trying to shoot — 13 cops and one civilian — were wearing body cameras, which means all that video must be reviewed. In addition, there were numerous surveillance cameras at the two shooting scenes, scientific tests on evidence and witness and victim statements.
“The issue here is that the officers were attacked in the street and now these new laws will facilitate their continued affront in the court room. We are under the gun, having to produce these mountains of material — not just evidence — on a speeded up trajectory,” NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said in a statement to Newsday.
Shea is concerned that missed discovery deadlines in the Williams case could jeopardize the prosecution and have a “dispiriting” effect.
NYPD officials noted that there are as many as 19 categories of evidence in the case, including 10 years worth of proficiency tests and disciplinary records, for experts and technicians handling evidence, that must be turned over to Bronx prosecutors. Then, prosecutors must turn over the materials to the defense within 15 days of the defendant being arraigned.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark declined to comment on the impact of the discovery demands in the Williams case on her staff but in the past has said publicly that she will need more resources to adhere to the new mandates.
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said her prosecutors each spend about 90 hours a month just reviewing video and audio tapes in criminal cases. Under the new law, such evidence must be reviewed by police and prosecutors and turned over to the defense in a much tighter timeline than before.
The old law gave prosecutors more time to disclose evidence. But advocates of discovery reform said the former timelines also got in the way of a fair trial. The old system allowed what defense attorney Kevin Stadelmaier said was “trial by ambush,” with defendants denied timely information to carry on intelligent plea negotiations and adequately prepare for trial.
The new law turns the tables and makes prosecutors do the work earlier, said Stadelmaier, a board member of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Prosecutors are allowed to ask for a 30-day extension with possible extra time if they don’t yet have certain materials. Still, the new time requirements are creating a nightmare of work in the Williams case, especially because of the number of cops involved, police said.
The heavy upfront workload is burdening other district attorneys' offices around the state. Some small offices, which don’t have robust funding sources and rely on the State Police crime lab, are struggling to meet the new mandates that took effect along with the controversial bail reforms, said David Hoovler, head of the state's District Attorneys Association.
“Across the state, whether you are a small, medium or major [prosecution] office, it has increased your workload at least 100 percent and even that number is probably low,” said Hoovler, the district attorney in Orange County.
In Manhattan, District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said he was considering not prosecuting certain cases because of the demands of the new law and is offering staffers a special $60 per diem payment for days when prosecutors work into the night or on weekends to make the new deadlines.