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Closed court a big mistake

March 17, 2003

What was Staten Island Supervising Judge Leonard Rienzi thinking Friday when he held a secret arraignment for three suspects in the fatal shooting of undercover detectives Rodney Andrews and James Nemorin?

In bowing to the fiction that a public hearing would endanger the lives of the suspects, Rienzi proved himself unaware of the maxim of former federal judge Kenneth Conboy, who served as a deputy commissioner for the NYPD. Conboy's words, spoken two decades ago, are as valid today as they were then: "Shine the light of the media in all the dark corners of the criminal justice system."

Attorneys for the suspects, fearing for their clients' safety, made the closing motion, and Staten Island District Attorney William Murphy went along with it.

But anyone who watches "Law and Order" can figure out what is really going on.

The suspects - Omar Green, Jessie Jacobus and Mitchell Diaz, all of whom pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges - are negotiating with Murphy, apparently over the terms of their sentences.

Green allegedly set up the gun deal. Diaz allegedly supplied the murder weapon, a .44-caliber revolver that police found in an apartment hallway near the scene of the shootings. Jacobus allegedly sat in the back seat next to Ronell Wilson, who allegedly pulled the trigger.

Murphy is seeking evidence to justify the death penalty against Wilson.

By closing the arraignment, Rienzi could be setting a dangerous precedent. In every step of a potential death penalty case, there must be no doubt that the court system has been fair and no one is being railroaded.

Rienzi is shrouding in secrecy what should be a public proceeding. While negotiations and deal-making are part of the process, in a case of such enormous public interest, virtually everything should be in the open.

This is especially true in a potential death penalty case, all the more so when it involves the killing of two cops. An indication of the emotions surrounding the case is the following news release, issued the day of the hearing by the office of Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro:

"Borough President James Molinaro today declared that if alleged cop killer Ronell Wilson is not eligible for the death penalty, then the state's capital punishment statute does not really exist and must be changed."

Closing the hearing does two things: First, it focuses more attention on the very thing Rienzi sought to avoid. Second, it raises the specter of something being improperly concealed. That's why court hearings are public - so that the public can have confidence in them.

Another former judge who also knows something about prosecuting put it to Newsday this way: "As a practical matter, if you fear for the suspects' safety, you can put them in protective custody. You can open the hearing and seal some of the minutes.

"Nobody understands what he did. It makes no sense."

Barrister Bashing. A year ago, a federal appeals court ruled that Patrolmen's Benevolent Association attorney Steve Worth's defense of Charles Schwarz in the Abner Louima sodomy case was so feeble that Worth had to have had a conflict of interest.

Now, ex-police-Lt. Patricia Feerick, a rising star whose career ended in a controversial conviction, has sued Worth for incompetence, claiming he failed to properly cross-examine a key prosecution witness at her trial in 1995. Her suit also alleges misconduct on the part of the Manhattan district attorney's office for concealing the witness's arrest for alleged drug-dealing. [CORRECTION: Former NYPD Lt. Patricia Feerick has filed a motion for a new trial claiming attorney Stephen Worth failed to properly cross-examine a key prosecution witness about a past drug arrest at her 1994 trial. March 17's One Police Plaza Confidential column incorrectly described her legal action as a suit against Worth. Pg. A02 Q 3/24/03]

Feerick, a nurse and attorney, was convicted of leading three cops in an illegal raid of Denise Jackson's East Harlem apartment, where Jackson and several others were terrorized for six hours as police searched for a cop's stolen radio.

Feerick's 2-year prison sentence was commuted by Gov. George Pataki in 1999 after she served a month in Rikers Island.

After her conviction, she filed a Freedom of Information suit that took seven years to process. It was only last September, she alleges, that she learned of Jackson's arrest on drug charges.

Worth, it turned out, had known about Jackson's arrest but did not cross-examine her about it.

Worth acknowledges knowing of the arrest and not cross-examining Jackson about it, but he notes - as others do - that he grilled Jackson extensively on other aspects of her drug-addicted life.

"Feerick told me she wanted me to recall certain things she felt would prove prosecutorial misconduct," Worth said. "She implied that either I recall them or I was incompetent because I didn't ask about it [the drug-dealing.]

"I am only going public because she went public with this. Feerick tacitly threatened to call me incompetent unless my recollection jibed with hers. I was not willing to do that," he said.

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© 2003 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.