The power of the state parole board to revoke an inmate’s release is under challenge for at least the second time in recent months as an appeal before the Appellate Division, First Department, alleges the panel illegally yielded to pressure in rescinding parole in a sensational kidnapping case.
Aurelina Leonor, who is serving an 18-year-to-life term in connection with the 1993 kidnapping of businessman Harvey Weinstein, argues on appeal that the parole board withered under criticism from the New York Post and rescinded her release for no reason other than a ruckus caused by the newspaper.
Leonor’s appeal and challenge to the authority of the parole board to withdraw a release decision mirrors one now under consideration by the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Costello v. Evans, 514282. In both cases, the board, after granting the offender release, rescinded parole because of complaints. At issue in the appeals is whether the complaints of survivors constitute “new” evidence on which to base a rescission.
Leonor, records show, made a series of ransom calls on behalf of two men who had kidnapped Weinstein but was not directly involved in planning or orchestrating the abduction. Leonor claims she took part only because she and her family were threatened by the main perpetrator.
Weinstein, the so-called “Tuxedo King” who was CEO of Lord West Formal Wear Inc. in Queens, was abducted from a diner parking lot and held in a pit near the Henry Hudson Parkway for 13 days. The kidnappers were captured and Weinstein was rescued shortly after the victim’s family paid a $3 million ransom. Weinstein died in 2007.
Leonor turned down an 8 1/2-to-25-year plea bargain and was convicted at trial of first-degree kidnapping and sentenced to a 25-year-to-life term in state prison.
On appeal, the First Department found the sentence harsh and excessive and reduced it to 18-years to life (People v. Leonor, 245 AD2d 22, 1997). Leonor became eligible for parole in March 2011, and with a solid institutional record and numerous letters of support was approved for release.
But immediately after the parole ruling was released, the New York Post published two stories about the decision, one of them quoting a police officer who said he was “shocked” by the decision and another in which Weinstein’s cousin expressed disgust. A week later, the cousin, Weinstein’s son and his girlfriend all wrote letters to the parole board opposing Leonor’s release. Shortly after, the board rescinded her parole.
Richard Greenberg, attorney-in-charge of the Office of the Appellate Defender, argues on appeal that parole can be rescinded only upon the discovery of new evidence.
“The only purported evidence offered against Ms. Leonor at the hearing were the three letters,” Greenberg says in his appellate brief. “Beyond the fact that they were hearsay, and the authors were not subjected to cross examination, they did not even contain any matters of an evidentiary nature. Rather, the letters were, for the most part, angry diatribes that castigated Ms. Leonor for exercising her right to a trial and the Appellate Division for reducing her sentence.”
Greenberg argues parole was initially granted because of Leonor’s institutional record and rehabilitation, factors that did not change between the time her release was approved and the time it was rescinded.
“Once Ms. Leonor’s impending release was made public, the tabloid articles and family members’ letters unfairly and improperly pressured the Board to order a rescission hearing,” Greenberg argues. “Other than family members’ discontent with the Board’s release decision, there was no materially significant new information that could possibly justify the rescission of the release decision.”
The state’s brief is due Jan. 30.
Peter Cutler, spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, declined to comment.
Before the Leonor case is decided, the Third Department is likely to issue its opinion in Costello, which involves a defendant, Pablo Costello, who took part in a robbery where his codefendant shot and killed an officer shortly after Costello had fled from the scene.
Costello had been approved for parole and was within four days of walking out of prison when the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) and the New York Daily News complained that the victim’s survivors had not been offered an opportunity to state their views. A rescission hearing was held and Costello’s release was withdrawn.
The Third Department case is unusual in that six former parole commissioners submitted a joint amicus brief arguing that the “personal, subjective feelings” of family members do not amount to “substantial evidence of significant information not previously known,” the standard for rescission (NYLJ, Nov. 26).
In response, the New York State Attorney General’s Office maintains that the long-term and continuing impact on survivors is a factor the parole board can take into consideration.
@|John Caher can be contacted at email@example.com.