Two men who have been imprisoned for nearly a quarter-century in separate shootings are getting new trials after a judge said Thursday the original proceedings were tainted by an ex-prosecutor’s effort to keep minorities and women off the juries.
Santiago Valdez, who was convicted of fatally shooting two men in a Queens nightclub, and Paul Morant, who was found guilty of shooting a police officer in the chest, watched on video from state prisons as their 1996 convictions were dismissed, at the request of both defense lawyers and prosecutors. The two didn’t speak during the hearing, though Morant offered a “thank you!” to the judge after it wrapped up.
Morant and Valdez remain behind bars for now, with Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz planning retrials. She said the evidence against the two is sound but she couldn’t stand behind convictions obtained with “shameful conduct,” spelled out in notes recently unearthed in case files.
The notes were a cheatsheet of prejudices, favoring “established whites” as jurors and trying to exclude a swath of other people — Hispanics, Jews, some Blacks based on their neighborhoods, Italian-Americans if a defendant shared that background, and “mother type” or “grandmotherly” women, according to Bryce Benjet, Katz’ conviction-integrity chief. The files indicate the trial prosecutor indeed consulted the notes to nix prospective jurors in the Valdez and Morant cases, he said.
Queens state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Zayas called the notes “abhorrent” and “a smoking gun” of discrimination.
“The document explicitly instructs prosecutors to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion and ethnicity, all in clear violation of well established constitutional law,” he said.
Both sides in a trial are allowed to eliminate a certain number of potential jurors without giving a reason, in what are known as “peremptory challenges.” But a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibits prosecutors from excluding prospective jurors solely because of their race, and subsequent rulings have expanded its scope to call into question moves to exclude potential jurors based on a variety of demographic characteristics, such as race, gender, national origin, religion or sexual orientation.
“Even a single use of a peremptory strike in a discriminatory fashion is a constitutional violation warranting a reversal of a conviction,” said Ishita Kala, a lawyer for Morant and Valdez.
The former prosecutor, whom Zayas identified as Christopher McGrath, left the DA’s office in 1997. Phone and email messages seeking comment on the dismissals were sent to possible addresses for McGrath.
Katz said her office was reviewing the eight other trial convictions the ex-prosecutor obtained and has checked to see whether his contemporaries had copies of the same jury-picking notes, finding none in a review of over 50 files.
A number of prosecutors’ offices around the country have become more open to revisiting and sometimes reversing old convictions in recent years, as the rise of DNA evidence and other factors have propelled a growing exoneration movement and put pressure on the justice system.
Still, it’s not too common for prosecutors to join in disavowing a conviction in a case they vow to retry, despite the passage of decades.
The Queens DA’s move in the Valdez and Morant cases is “pretty bold and pretty impressive,” said Adele Bernhard, director of New York Law School’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, who isn’t involved in the Valdez and Morant cases. “They feel they can’t stand behind the conviction because of the way it was obtained, and that is very unusual.”
Katz, a Democrat in her first year in office, said the review of the Morant and Valdez cases didn’t reveal any problems with the evidence and the shootings “unquestionably continue to warrant vigorous prosecution.”
Valdez, now 59, was convicted of murder after bullets flew into the closed door of a social club in 1993, killing patrons Arley Zapata and Danny Velez.
Morant, 55, was found guilty of attempted murder in the 1995 shooting of Officer Keith Schweers, who had stopped him on a Queens street. Schweers was saved by his bulletproof vest.
“We will go forward with these cases fairly, justly, with no hint of bias or discrimination of any kind,” Katz said in a statement. “We will do what should have been done long ago, and we will do it right.”
But Schweers said he was “very disheartened” by the dismissal of Morant’s conviction and the prospect of another trial.
“I’m not looking forward to reopening old wounds,” said Schweers, now 51 and retired from the police department. “… It’s so unfortunate and unfair and frustrating.”
“You do the right thing all the time, and all of a sudden, because the way something is interpreted, I — as well as my family, and as well as the other case’s families — have to relive this.”
Messages were left at possible phone numbers for Zapata’s relatives. None could be found for Velez’ family.