Legal questions are being raised after a New York state criminal court justice was forced to retire early because of her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
The state is asking if Judge ShawnDya Simpson's declining mental state impaired her judgment in court decisions, including a wrongful conviction case. Last August, a packed Brooklyn courtroom watched in shock as Judge Simpson abruptly left the bench after announcing she would not overturn the murder conviction of Nelson Cruz.
"Every time she issues a decision, she gets the facts wrong," said Cruz's attorney Justin Bonus. "For the past four years, she's consistently issued decisions where the facts are patently wrong. Not a little bit wrong, patently wrong."
Cruz, now 39 years old, was charged with murder in 1998 and he has always maintained his innocence. His case became particularly noteworthy because it involved a former NYPD Detective, Louis Scarcella. In a 2015 prison interview, Cruz told NBC New York Scarcella had tried to get him to confess at the 75th precinct.
"When I refused to sign it, he became frustrated. crumbled the papers, slapped me in my face with it. He was telling me, 'Listen, you just sign the paper and you will go home,'" Cruz said.
Scarcella’s attorney denied that ever happened. In 2017, Simpson turned down Cruz’s request for a hearing on new evidence.
"We don't hesitate. We file a reargument because we know she's wrong. We say, 'hey maybe she missed something.' We don't know what's going on," Bonus recalled.
But a year later during a recorded court session, Simpson stunned onlookers when she suddenly ordered a hearing. The hearing lasted four months with multiple witnesses testifying, including Scarcella. Then comes a "bizarre" August appearance where Judge Simpson made a comment that she hadn't read the court minutes, according to Bonus.
Bonus said it was almost like Simpson didn't even issue a decision when she said that she would issue a decision in two weeks.
Simpson left the door open for the defense to reargue its position. It later came to light that Judge Simpson went on medical leave for an undisclosed condition that same month.
Last week, the 54-year-old judge, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, agreed to officially retire in October. The Office of Judicial Conduct determined that "her behavior toward litigants, lawyers, and others had become erratic and at times intemperate."
Bonus has now filed a motion to vacate Simpson’s oral decision, saying she was mentally incompetent, and he’s demanding Cruz’s immediate release on bail.
"It's sad for her but it's horrible for Nelson Cruz, he didn't get a fair shake. He didn't get a fair review," Bonus said. "She should have recused herself. She should have said 'look, I can't handle this.'"
It’s unclear when Cruz's motion will be heard.
NBC New York was unable to directly reach Judge Simpson but a spokesperson for the courts said that anyone else who has concerns about Simpson’s judicial decisions should make an application to the Appellate Division.