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A Westchester, N.Y., carpenter had his conviction for a double homicide overturned Monday by a federal judge because the linchpin of the prosecution was statements made by the defendant at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings that should not have been admitted as evidence. Charles L. Brieant, a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York in White Plains, granted the habeas corpus petition of Paul Cox, who was sentenced in 1995 to a minimum of more than 16 years for the murder of two doctors. Brieant ruled that the use of statements made at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings violated either New York state’s law protecting religious confessions or religious protections in the U.S. Constitution. Cox had acknowledged committing the killings when he testified at the trial, but contended that his acts had been the product of temporary insanity. The jury had rejected that defense and convicted him of manslaughter, rather than murder as the prosecution had urged. Because Brieant suppressed Cox’s handprints recovered at the crime scene because they were directly traceable to Cox’s confessions at AA meetings, his lawyer, Robert N. Isseks, said the prosecution had no evidence it could use to retry his client. Cox will not be released for the time being because Judge Brieant stayed his ruling pending an appeal. Wednesday, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro assailed the ruling and vowed to appeal. It is “outrageous,” Pirro said, for “a federal judge to bootstrap [into a winning argument] some parallel he created between Alcoholics Anonymous and a religious institution or psychologist’s privilege.” Cox was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 8 1/3 to 25 years for the 1988 slayings of Lakshman Rao Chervu, a professor of nuclear medicine at Albert Einstein Medical Center, and his wife, Shanta Chervu, who was a geriatric resident. The two doctors lived in the same Larchmont home that Cox had lived in with his family until he was 7 years old. Cox, however, did not come to the attention of authorities as a suspect until other members of the Harbor Island AA chapter in late 1992 or early 1993 told the police that he had mentioned during recovery sessions that he had dreams and fragmented memories of killing the two doctors. Fingerprints taken from Cox after his arrest matched those recovered at the crime scene, which was only six-tenths of a mile from the home to which his family moved after they sold their house to the Chervus in 1974. Cox testified during the trial that he had committed the killings during an alcohol-induced temporary blackout. After an automobile accident, he had accidentally stumbled upon the Chervus house, and slain the couple in the mistaken belief that they were his parents, according to his trial testimony. In granting the habeas application, Brieant ruled that Cox’s statements made during his participation in AA’s “Twelve Steps” program were either privileged under New York’s statute protecting confessions made to the clergy, or the law itself is unconstitutional for failing to confer such protection. Brieant wrote in Cox v. Miller, 01-3751, that he was inclined to agree with the prosecution’s argument that AA is a self-help program and not a religion, but that the issue had been foreclosed by earlier rulings of both the New York Court of Appeals and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 2nd Circuit in Warner v. Orange County, 115 F.3d 1068, had ruled that because AA is a religion it would violate the Establishment Clause to sentence a criminal defendant to attend AA recovery sessions. Three years earlier, in Griffin v. Coughlin, 88 N.Y.2d 647, New York’s high court had reached a similar result in barring prison authorities from requiring an inmate to attend AA sessions in order to participate in a family visitation program. RELIGIOUS REFERENCES Brieant noted that there are “numerous religious references in the Twelve Steps” program, and AA meetings are ended with The Lord’s Prayer. As a consequence, he concluded, “there is no principled basis” upon which AA could be held to be a religion for Establishment Clause purposes, but not for purposes of construing New York’s law protecting confessions to the clergy, Civil Practice Law and Rules �4505. Moreover, if CPLR �4505 were not construed to embrace confessions made at AA meetings, that statute would violate both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment, he wrote. Interpreting �4505 to cover only “traditionally recognized forms of religious expression over less conventional religious expression” would violate the Establishment Clause, he said. Similarly, to give less protection to AA communications than more traditional forms of confidential religious communications would contravene the Free Exercise Clause, he wrote. Assistant District Attorney Robin Lamont represented the Westchester District Attorney’s Office. Alex Smith of Gurda, Gurda & Smith teamed up with Isseks in representing Cox. Both lawyers practice in Middletown, N.Y.

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