Nassau Police Comissioner Patrick Ryder speaks about the death of...

Nassau Police Comissioner Patrick Ryder speaks about the death of Wilmer Maldonado on Wednesday in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

 In October 2018, Wilmer Maldonado Rodriguez stepped in to protect two boys against threats from alleged MS-13 members, who then allegedly beat him with a baseball bat and stabbed him. Five suspects are still being held, awaiting trial.

Their trial was slated to begin on Jan. 6, before being postponed, and in December the judge assigned to the case ordered that a variety of evidence be turned over to the suspects' attorneys. That included the name of Rodriguez, who planned to testify.

Sunday, Rodriguez, 36, a homeless day laborer, was found bludgeoned to death in New Cassel.

It’s not clear whether his death is connected to the disclosure of his name, but the murder was immediately linked to the criminal justice reforms that went into effect in New York on Jan. 1. That connection was asserted by both staunch opponents of the reforms and Democratic supporters who stand behind ending cash bail for most crimes and increasing disclosure, but say the law needs tweaks.

The hasty push to connect the homicide and the law was a mistake. So was the speed with which changes to a complex set of criminal justice statutes were passed, without full consideration of the difficulties of redirecting a massive bureaucracy.  

At a news conference Wednesday, Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said the new law needed to be changed “quickly, before we have another victim, as in this case.” Nassau County Executive Laura Curran issued a statement that said, “We cannot let another murder happen because a witness may have been disclosed. Change this law now!”

But Rodriguez’s name was being kept secret due to an often-used order of protection issued by a judge, not the old  disclosure laws. The suspects who attacked Rodriguez likely always knew who he was. And the defense attorneys were granted disclosure because their clients’ trial date was approaching, as even the prior law would have soon demanded. Those defense attorneys also say they did not share the witness' name with their clients.

Ryder has since confirmed he knows of no direct connection between  the disclosure of Rodriguez’s name and his death, and Curran issued an apologetic statement Thursday backtracking and saying, “Yesterday, we made a connection to Mr. Rodriquez’s [sic] death and criminal justice reform when there was no direct connection ... We need to take a deep breath and parse out necessary changes to criminal justice reform.”

The politics of this reform are extreme. Many Republicans and law enforcement groups contend crime will skyrocket. Liberal Democrats claim the law is perfect and should not be changed. And moderate Democrats are caught in the middle, asking for improvements while standing up for the changes  to end the jailing of poor people, often minorities, whose only proven crime was having no money.

The criminal code needs revisions that will better balance the rights of defendants while keeping the public safe. 

But the killing of Wilmer Maldonado Rodriguez is not proof that these changes are needed. But the outcry surrounding his death is.

— The editorial board 


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