Defense attorneys in a high-profile murder case in Queens claim the district attorney’s office is unfairly attempting to remove them as counsel to the defendant, over conflict of interest concerns they say are entirely of prosecutors’ making.
Christopher Ransom was charged with, among other things, second-degree murder in the February shooting death of New York Police Department Detective Brian Simonsen. Ransom is not alleged to have himself shot Simonsen; on the night of Feb. 12 Ransom attempted to rob a Richmond Hill T-Mobile store with a fake gun. News accounts at the time indicated Simonsen and another officer were the first to respond to the scene.
Simonsen was killed by friendly fire as he and the other officer attempted to retreat after seeing Ransom brandish his fake weapon, according to reports. Ransom was also shot by police but survived.
Attorneys with the Legal Aid Society have been representing Ransom since the day following his initial arrest, according to court papers. Attorney Mihea Kim was at Ransom’s bedside during his video teleconference arraignment a few days after.
On April 9, the Queens district attorney’s office filed a motion with Queens Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Holder to “recuse” Kim as Ransom’s counsel. At issue, according to prosecutors, was the possibility of a government witness, Elijah Hanley, also being represented by a Legal Aid Society attorney, Julia Burke.
Hanley’s involvement in the charges against Ransom appear to have nothing to do with the murder allegation, according to court filings. Instead, the Queens DA’s office stated in its April 9 motion that Hanley, an associate of Ransom’s, was arrested by police Feb. 15—three days after the death of Simonsen. In Hanley’s possession was a red iPhone, which he identified as having been previously purchased from Ransom.
According to prosecutors, Hanley knew the device was stolen. They claim it was one of the mobile phones Ranson stole during a Feb. 8 store robbery. This and three other alleged robberies are also part of the indictment against Ransom that includes his murder charge.
Prosecutors argue in their motion to have Ransom’s attorney Kim removed from his case that “two lawyers from the same law firm simultaneously representing two clients whose interests actually conflict cannot give either client loyalty.”
In their response filed May 15, attorneys with Legal Aid argue in opposition to the motion to remove Kim that the government’s actions alone created the conflict it now seeks to obviate. They claim prosecutors alone failed to notify the Queens County Criminal Court of the asserted connections between Hanley and Ransom’s cases, leading to Burke’s assignment to Hanley’s misdemeanor stolen property charge.
“The public record of the calendar appearances provides no hint of a conflict with Mr. Ransom’s case, nor that Ms. Burke was in possession of confidences or secrets related to any cooperation with the police by Mr. Hanley against Mr. Ransom,” the Legal Aid attorneys state.
It wasn’t until April 9—the same day the DA filed its motion with Holder to have Kim removed as counsel—that the DA’s office alerted Burke to the connection her client’s misdemeanor charge allegedly had to Ransom’s prosecution, Legal Aid’s filing states. The public defenders claim the DA’s office applied to have Legal Aid remain counsel to Hanley, even as it sought separation from Ransom. However, the judge overseeing Hanley’s misdemeanor case relieved Burke, upon the attorney’s request.
As Hanley is no longer represented by Legal Aid, the public defenders group says its internal legal ethics supervisors have “advised that no conflict of interest exists” in Ransom’s case.
“In light of the close working relationship between Mr. Ransom and his attorneys and the team, and the substantial efforts expended thus far in representing him, granting the prosecution’s request to rupture The Legal Aid Society’s ongoing attorney-client relationship with Mr. Ransom would violate Mr. Ransom’s state and federal constitutional rights to counsel of choice and would cause him great prejudice,” the public defender organization stated.
In a statement, Legal Aid Society’s attorney-in-charge of the homicide defense task force Jamal Johnson said the defender organization was “very concerned” about the actions taken by prosecutors in Ransom’s case.
“We are further concerned that the Office withheld key information about the identity of one of their witnesses in what appears to be a transparent effort to manufacture a conflict for strategic advantage. The Legal Aid Society’s Homicide Defense Task Force—a team which includes several attorneys, mitigation specialists, investigators, forensic and digital units, and other resources—has represented Mr. Ransom since the inception of this case and we have the necessary resources to provide him the robust defense that he is entitled to,” Johnson said.
In a response to a request for comment, the Queens DA’s director of communications Ikimulisa Livingston said in an email to the New York Law Journal, “This is a real constitutional issue that must be addressed and will be before we proceed.”
Ransom is next scheduled appearance is June 11. Justice Holder is expected to rule on the DA’s motion no later than the date of the next appearance.