Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Expert Opinion / Commentary: Same Old, Same Old Monroe County

Commentary: Same Old, Same Old Monroe County

Michael Giuliano

The City of Rochester has a new mayor but also desperately needs a better public relations team. To go along with the spectacle of mayors – grown men, playing musical chairs – we have political machines choosing school board members as always (a sure-fire path to improvement), a policy of general public harassment with the issuance of $130 tickets for idling cars, an unaccountable police department, and last year’s mass impound of vehicles to shady, (and city-approved) towing companies during holiday parades, ensuring that many county residents never bother to enter city limits for any reason.

The story of one local resident I became acquainted with helps to disabuse one of any notion that either professionalism or decency carries the day in the justice system with consistency. Haughty, nearly power-drunk behavior by police “professionals” does no favor for the city’s reputation and leaves a poor impression of city governance. This woman’s (“Vicky’s”) journey through justice was just beginning when this past winter she was arrested for allegedly harassing a witness; of course, in fact, she was the one accosted by the witness.

After the arrest, a female RPD officer made a snarky remark to a colleague about having to bring in yet “another prostitute.” Another officer would brag about her personal drunken vehicular escapades from a previous night while yet one more looked at porn on the computer.

The nurse privately apologized to Vicky for the behavior of the officers. How regrettable that the actions of a minority of unfit officers, who mock the notion of cop as “peace officer,” sully the service of others, most of whom perform their roles admirably. Loyalty, being what it is, ensures that the unfit are never called on it.

The new budget has been submitted by Mayor Richards. Apparently, cuts to certain items such as firehouses and libraries were considered. Layoffs in several departments are proposed in the 2011-12 budget. As city council takes up the Richards budget, the council members might do well to ask why a city with a declining population and a per capita income of $19,000 really needs 63 (and counting) police officers making over $100,000? One wonders what real benefit such a top-heavy, bureaucratic force has for residents.

As our defendant’s journey through the “justice system” continued, the assigned counsel from the Public Defender’s Office registered annoyance that she wouldn’t just accept the plea “deal” to satisfy the false charge. The deal was a reduced charge and cleaning jail cells on weekends. Her attorney indicated he had more important felony cases to attend to. No doubt, those charged with E felonies are also told the same thing about the more important B and C felony cases.

The indigent are denied a meaningful defense. However, officials are perfectly content to pay for a lavish new crime laboratory and fund a large police bureaucracy that treats actual violence less seriously than a “possession” offense. The message is: Cop a plea and let us process you through the system. The innocent are expected to plead guilty or else be punished more severely. This woman had no advocate in her own lawyer who, along with the prosecutor, looked at her in puzzlement that she wouldn’t just cooperate, admit guilt, and clean the jail filth.

Complaints to police are often made in retaliation for personal grievances; the resulting criminal process does little to correct earlier mistakes or protect defendants.  Once charged, legal mythology is of no help; the defendant is presumed guilty.

In most cases, the often flaky evidence is never tested. I once learned from a longtime Monroe County prosecutor that he had never seen a single search warrant application rejected. This fact lays waste to the notion of “neutral” magistrates. Many of them are, of course, former ADAs. No bias there of course.

As to the Town of Greece Police Department, or the “Merrit Rahn” Department, as it might be known for its disgraced ex-police chief, the town ought to simply abolish it, sell its assets and refund to the taxpayers some of the monies that were thieved from them. Chad Rahn, son of Merrit, was sentenced recently for his crimes.

Monroe County doesn’t come out much better.  The criminal investigations and arrests surrounding the “Robutrad” scandal, whereby there existed a link between cooked public payrolls and political fundraisers, parades, and campaign mailers aimed at helping leaders and candidates in the local Republican Party.

In the case of the infamous 1988 Viola Manville murder, the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office let an innocent man rot in prison for 18 years despite knowing that child-killer Mark Christie had bragged about killing Manville shortly after the murder. Revealing the multiplicity of talents the public servants possess, Sterling’s confession to police was obtained under hypnosis. This was considered solid proof by prosecutors – a custodial interrogation and admission under hypnosis employed by police after another person had already bragged about killing Manville.

Years later, the District Attorney’s Office obstinately refused to have DNA evidence tested when requested to do so by the Innocence Project. This request was made at least as far back as 2004. And yet, the county’s prosecutors weren’t the ones locked up in a jail cell. Not until 2010 was Frank Sterling released from prison after being exonerated – and after Kali Poulton was murdered.

Monroe County prosecutors who delayed disclosing exculpatory DNA testing results and fingerprint analysis to Douglas Warney, while his post-conviction motion to compel DNA testing and his federal habeas petition were pending, escaped accountability for their actions in that case. That doesn’t provide much incentive to disclose exculpatory evidence while a person suffers in prison.

Of course, the New York Court of Appeals ruled recently that the Court of Claims wrongly dismissed Warney’s suit for restitution from the state for his wrongful imprisonment. Showing how difficult it is to get a truly unbiased hearing despite the honest efforts of judges, the Court of Claims judge was Renee Forgensi Minarik, wife of the former Republican Chairman in the same county as the one in which Warney was convicted.

Some would do well to read the Supreme Court’s opinion in Berger v. United States where the court reiterates that a prosecutor’s duty is to find the truth, not to simply convict any person at any cost. It is a principle without teeth; as it stands, many of those within the system so blinded by zealotry are promoted, reelected, rewarded with overtime, or rewarded with political appointments to state or federal court while being showered with praise by sycophant colleagues. Saving face and professional standing is often more important than decency.

Michael Giuliano is a Rochester-based freelance writer and a senior attorney editor at Thomson Reuters.