Citing evidence that prosecutors in a 1995 murder trial may have withheld evidence, misled jurors and coerced witnesses, Eastern District Judge Dora L. Irizarry has ordered a hearing to determine whether, in addition to granting a defendant’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, to also bar the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office from retrying the case.
The hearing is scheduled to begin at noon today.
Defendant Jabbar Collins was convicted in March 1995 of the robbery and murder of Abraham Pollack, a Williamsburg landlord and father of nine, and sentenced to 34 years to life in prison.
In April 2008, Mr. Collins filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
After initially opposing the petition, the prosecution last week conceded to committing a single Brady violation—namely, failing to alert the defense that a key witness had briefly recanted his story while meeting with an assistant district attorney before testifying for the prosecution at trial.
The district attorney’s office learned of the failure only recently, through a retired detective who had worked on the case, according to an affirmation filed on Friday by Assistant District Attorney Monique Ferrell, counsel to the office’s rackets division. The detective said he could not recall the identity of the assistant district attorney who alerted him to the witness’ recantation.
Although the prosecution withdrew its opposition to Mr. Collins’ petition, the district attorney’s office asked Judge Irizarry to condition her grant of a writ on its right to retry the case.
Mr. Collins, 37, who recently turned down a deal that would allow him to walk in exchange for the 16 years he has served, also found the offer insufficient.
Judge Irizzary held a hearing yesterday to determine whether to simply grant the writ or to proceed with an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether the district attorney’s office may retry the case.
Although yesterday’s proceedings lasted six hours, Judge Irizarry telegraphed from the beginning that she intended to order the evidentiary hearing.
“I find the allegations to be quite troubling and the whole history of the case [to be] quite troubling,” Judge Irizzary told the prosecutors, who included Ms. Ferrell, appellate chief Leonard Joblove and Assistant District Attorney Kevin Richardson.
Mr. Collins personally established much of his case against the prosecution.
While serving his sentence at the Green Haven Correctional Facility, Mr. Collins became a highly regarded jailhouse lawyer—he was the subject of a 2006 New York Times profile—and, utilizing federal suits, state Article 78 proceedings and Freedom of Information Act requests, he compiled extensive evidence suggesting that the prosecution withheld impeachment evidence and Brady materials and made material misrepresentations to the court and the jury.
Yesterday, Mr. Collins’ attorney, Joel Rudin, set forth a litany of alleged offenses by various prosecutors, including Michael Vecchione, who served as lead prosecutor on the case and now serves as chief of the office’s rackets division.
One prosecutor who worked on the case has since died. The others, including Mr. Vecchione, denied participating in or knowing about a conversation in which a witness recanted his story.
Mr. Collins was represented at trial by Michael Harrison.
In addition to the admitted Brady violation, the prosecution suppressed impeachment evidence regarding each of its three star witnesses, Mr. Rudin claimed. In one example, a witness testified that while he was on the phone with a 911 operator, he saw Mr. Collins run from the scene of the crime. The prosecution allegedly failed to tell Mr. Collins’ trial counsel that there was no record of any such call.
“Each witness would have been thoroughly impeached had the Brady information been released,” Mr. Rudin told the court.
Judge Irizarry seemed most troubled by Mr. Vecchione’s repeated pronouncements to the jury at the Collins trial that its witnesses had received nothing in return for their testimony, when there was evidence the prosecution went to significant lengths to either entice or coerce the witnesses into appearing.
One witness, who faced an unrelated robbery charge, allegedly received a promise of 1 1/2 to three years in prison, rather than as many as five, after the judge was informed of his cooperation, according to Mr. Rudin. Another witness agreed to testify only after the prosecution “engineer[ed] the revocation of his work release” and his return to prison.
Judge Irizarry, herself a former assistant district attorney in the Bronx and Manhattan, repeatedly reprimanded the prosecution for its failure to more quickly investigate the allegations against it.
“Prosecutors have a very special duty…and that is because you are a quasi-judicial officer, [you] have the duty not just to get a conviction by any means necessary or at all costs, but to do justice, as hokey as that sounds,” Justice Irizarry told the prosecution.
Ms. Ferrell defended the prosecution’s efforts to investigate Mr. Collins’ claims, describing the “hundreds of hours” of work her office spent on the case.
The judge then chastised Ms. Ferrell for her defensive tone.
“Ms. Ferrell, you can really tone down this tone of outrage you have in your voice. I’m not liking the tone,” the judge said. “The tone is really poor. This self-righteous tone is not helping anything.”
Ms. Ferrell replied, “I apologize for sounding outraged, but I guess I am.”
Mr. Vecchione is expected to be called as a witness by Mr. Collins, but Mr. Richardson told the court that he has a scheduling conflict and would be unavailable for the next two days.
The courtroom was filled by Mr. Collins’ family members—he is one of nine children, and has three of his own—who hoped that the judge would vacate his conviction and grant his motion for bail at yesterday’s proceedings.
Judge Irizzary said she would rule on the bail motion at today’s hearing.
The district attorney’s office declined to comment on the case.
@|Mark Fass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.