The future didn’t look very bright for an investment banker at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement last year, when he was arrested on a hate crime charge and accused of making racial slurs during a tussle with a cab driver.
The Morgan Stanley executive, William Jennings, was charged with second-degree assault, theft of services and the hate crime of second-degree intimidation based on race or bigotry. He was placed on administrative leave at work, and the case moved slowly through the felony court system.
Then suddenly last week, charges were dropped against Jennings upon the request of the prosecutor. Was this a sign that the hate crime was difficult to prove or simply just another criminal case with insufficient evidence?
While Jennings’ lawyer says the answer is the latter, a look at recent hate crimes in the state shows that defendants are not facing any significant jail time.
For instance, when Donald Vaccaro, the former chief executive officer of TicketNetwork in Vernon, was accused of making racial slurs while being escorted out of a Hartford Academy Awards party, he was placed in the state’s Accelerated Rehabilitation program. The disposition allows first-time offenders to have their record wiped clean after the satisfactory completion of a hate crimes education program and community service.
That outcome, said one defense lawyer who specializes in defending hate crimes, is a common occurrence.
“If it’s a situation where someone doesn’t have a criminal history or record of this kind of behavior, obviously you want to try to resolve the case in the best possible manner for the defendant,” said Daniel P. Weiner, of Stamford. Weiner said that includes the hate crimes diversion program under probations’ Accelerated Rehabilitation Program.
Like any other criminal charge, Weiner said each hate crime case is looked at by the judge and prosecutor individually.
“You really have to look at the facts of each case,” said Weiner. “You can’t say this will happen in every case, or if this happens, [that] will definitely not happen. It’s all very subjective.”
So how did things change so drastically in what was once one of the more highly publicized hate crime cases in Connecticut history?
“When you have an individual of importance in the financial world who gets accused of a crime, there’s an immediate rush to judgment and everybody just thinks the worst,” Eugene Riccio, of Gulash & Riccio in Bridgeport, told the Law Tribune. “In this case, that premature judgment turned out to be completely wrong.”
Police alleged that Jennings hired the cab driver to take him from New York City to his home in Darien on Dec. 22. When Jennings reached his destination, he allegedly refused to pay the cab driver, Mohamed Anmar, the $204 cab fare, instead offering $50. A dispute ensued.
Anmar, who claims Jennings was intoxicated, said that when he put his hand through the partition into the passenger compartment, Jennings cut him with a pen knife, according to police. Jennings allegedly told the driver of Middle Eastern descent to go back to his own country.
Riccio said the evidence changed in the case. Specifically, Anmar held onto the knife and never told police. He also changed his story several times about where he was when Jennings got out of the cab.
Hassan Ahmad, the driver’s attorney, said his client told the prosecutor about five months ago that he had the knife. He said he should have told authorities sooner, but he was scared.
Ahmad said the delay didn’t affect the facts of the case. He said Jennings refused to pay the fare, took the knife out and slashed his client in the hand.
Riccio, however, claims Anmar changed his story several times over time, and pointed out that the driver never told police about any racially charged comments when he was questioned the night of the incident.
“That was something that came about a week later after talking to police,” said Riccio. “He never mentioned it the night of the incident.”
According to Jennings’ version of events, the cab driver asked for $300 when they arrived to his house. Jennings was used to a cost of about half that for a cab ride from New York City to Darien.
Believing he was being ripped off, Jennings tried giving the driver $150, to which the driver refused and began backing out of the driveway. He then told Jennings, “If you don’t want to pay me, I’m taking you back to New York,” according to the arrest warrant affidavit.
Jennings next realized he had a small pen knife in his possession and took it out of his pocket. The cab driver tried taking it from him but cut his hand in the process. The driver said “you cut me” and pulled over near the Darien Sport Shop. Jennings then ran from the cab and back to his home.
Jennings denied making any racially-charged comments to the cab driver.
Riccio said his client’s version of events look like the more credible version now that the charges have been dropped.
“That night, no knife is recovered. Five months later, the cabdriver discloses to the prosecutor that he’s in possession of the knife,” said Riccio. “This is completely confirmatory of what Jennings told the prosecutor. Why is [the cabdriver] withholding the knife for five months? He’s worried about getting in trouble for abducting my client.”
Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney Steven Weiss, at a hearing Oct. 15, asked Stamford Superior Court Judge Kenneth Povodator to dismiss the charges against Jennings, after informing him about the knife Anmar withheld from police. The judge then agreed to dismiss the charges.
Weiss told the Law Tribune that since the case had been dismissed he was not allowed to discuss it.
Generally speaking though, Weiss indicated that a hate crime prosecution is not any more challenging than other cases, depending on the evidence available. He said he has prosecuted one other hate crime that resulted in a conviction.
“Every offense has elements you have to prove,” said Weiss.
Weiner, the defense lawyer who includes hate crime defense in his area of specialty, agrees.
“If there are witnesses, like any other case, assuming that it’s provable, [state's attorneys] don’t have trouble prosecuting these cases as opposed to others,” said Weiner.
According to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there were 147 hate crime incidents reported across the state in 2010. Among them, 68 were racially motivated. In 2009, there were 199 reported offenses that included hate crimes. Of that number, 104 were said to be racially motivated.
Weiner said the most common scenario is “young people of different races — typically black and white — fight and then make disparaging comments.”
Weiner said an old-fashioned sincere apology by the defendant to the victim can go a long way in helping to resolve a hate crime case.
“In any situation, you need to acknowledge you’ve done something wrong,” said Weiner. “Depending on what point you’re at in a case, and the position the state is taking, it’s the first step towards recovery.”•