Stuart Namm (Rick Kopstein)
More than 20 years after leaving Long Island, former Suffolk County Court Judge Stuart Namm is back with a book explaining how he says he became a “pariah” and was driven from the bench—a job he said he loved.
Namm’s self-published “A Whistleblower’s Lament: The Perverted Pursuit of Justice in the State of New York” (Hellgate Press) describes what he calls a “pattern of corruption” in the investigation and prosecution of cases.
Old adversaries disputed that allegation then, and now.
“His recollection is very different from mine,” District Attorney Thomas Spota, told Newsday. “I think Namm was seeing shadows everywhere. Why was it only Judge Namm who saw this stuff, and not other judges?” Spota, as a lawyer in private practice, represented police officers in the state investigation that Namm’s allegations precipitated.
A graduate of Brooklyn Law School, Namm, 80, was elected to District Court as a Democrat in 1975, by a razor-thin margin in a Watergate-influenced election. He was defeated for re-election in 1991. However, Gov. Hugh Carey appointed him to fill a vacancy on the County Court bench. He was elected to a full 10-year term with the support of both major parties and assigned to hear homicide cases.
Namm had a reputation as a friend of police and prosecution who handed out long sentences, although he says he was always fair. In any case, he says he became disillusioned as he watched what went on in his court.
In 1985, Namm took the unusual step of writing to Gov. Mario Cuomo with allegations of botched police investigations and manufactured testimony. According to the State Commission of Investigation, he stated in his request for a special prosecutor:
“In two consecutive highly publicized murder trials, I have witnessed, among other things, such apparent prosecutorial misconduct as perjury, subornation of perjury, spoilations of evidence, abuse of subpoena power and the aforesaid attempt to intimidate a sitting judge.”
Namm was not the first to criticize the county’s criminal justice system. The commission, chaired by David Trager, noted that, before he made his allegations, there was a “substantial and reputable body of criticism” of the police and district attorney’s office, including eight Court of Appeals rulings, a grand jury investigation and a study by the Suffolk County Bar Association.
Following a preliminary investigation, the commission decided there was “substance” to the judge’s charges. And, it said, “Judge Namm’s allegations seemed an especially important topic to which to devote Commission resources.”
In 1989, the commission issued a report finding “grave shortcomings in the leadership and management” of the police and district attorney’s office. It concluded that the police department and the district attorney’s office “engaged in and permitted improper practices to occur in homicide prosecutions , including perjury, as well as grossly deficient investigative and management practices.”
When Namm’s term ended in 1993, neither his own Democratic Party, chaired by a former law partner, or the Republican Party would endorse him for re-election. Namm has lived in North Carolina ever since.
Q: Did you enjoy being a judge? Why did you prefer criminal trials?
A: I loved being a judge. It was my ambition as a pre-law college student at City College of New York from the tenements of Brownsville, Brooklyn, having spent many Saturday nights at 100 Centre Street, Magistrate’s Court with my fiancée. To me, a criminal trial was the most challenging of all trial work, and it was the ultimate form of trial practice. I never sought to become wealthy as a lawyer. When I graduated from Brooklyn Law School, I was hired by the Federal Trade Commission under President Kennedy’s “Law Honor Graduate Program,” thinking I might end up in corporate law. It never happened as I wanted to try criminal cases.
Q: Did your growing suspicions about police and the district attorney’s office change the way you conducted your trials? Did your relationship with law enforcement deteriorate?
A: Absolutely. I began to see all kinds of misconduct on the part of the prosecution whom I had first believed, until my eyes were opened by false testimony of assistant district attorneys in a hearing challenging the fairness of the jury panel. I heard much perjured testimony, stories of loss of notes or no notes by homicide detectives, subornation of perjury, lost or auctioned critical evidence, sudden appearance of “jailhouse snitches,” allegations of physical force used during the “interview” at police headquarters. The police had always supported me as a judge, until, in their minds, I had turned against them when my eyes had been fully opened.
Q: Why did you think it was necessary to take your concerns to Gov. Cuomo?
A: I turned to Gov. Mario Cuomo because there was no one else in the justice system I could trust, and I felt that a special prosecutor was needed. I had become public enemy number one, as there were those, including the administrative judges, who said that I had brought a “black cloud” over the county. The then chief administrative judge one day presented me with a parable: “Stuart, if one day you wake up and you find yourself on one side of the street, and everyone else is on the other side of the street, you are on the wrong side of the street!”
Q: What was the reaction in the local legal community to your accusations?
A: Most of the members of the bar who practiced law in Suffolk County were either silent or they would have preferred that I went quietly.
Q: Were you satisfied with the way the State Commission of Investigation conducted its probe and the conclusions it reached?
A: No. I was dissatisfied with the actions of the commission in that it took them three years to write a report, a period in which my courtroom became like a “war zone.” They did recommend the appointment of a special prosecutor who accomplished nothing with respect to the system of law enforcement. The entire homicide squad either resigned, retired or was transferred. Only the former head of the police laboratory was indicted for perjury. The district attorney did not run for reelection; and the various members of police leadership either resigned or were transferred.
Q: Why did you leave the state and stop practicing law when your term ended?
A: I left because my family felt that my life was in danger, and I left even though there were those who offered to support me in a run for district attorney. Moreover, a deal was made between the Democratic Party led by my former law partner, the late Dominic Baranello, who had been chairman of the state Democratic Party, ??and the leader of the Republican Party which gave him three judgeships and mine in exchange for me not being re-nominated. I had become the victim of a political deal to get me off the bench, although I should have been a hero, at least to my own party.
Q: You started writing your book when you were still sitting in Riverhead. Why did you put it aside?
A: On one day in January 1993, three weeks after my term ended, I was the first recipient of the Justice Thurgood Marshall Award of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; the recipient of the David C. Michaels Award of the New York State Bar Association “for courageous efforts in promoting integrity in the Criminal Justice System;” and a lifetime membership in the NAACP “to someone who stood up for what was right at great personal sacrifice. Principle was ahead of expediency. A man who practiced and lived what everyone else preached.”
My first wife, Lenore, and I were flown out to Hollywood where I signed two different option agreements, and I worked with two different producers on a fictionalized version of the story. One of the producers was Abby Mann who had an Emmy for creating the TV series “Kojak,” and an Oscar for writing the screen play for “Judgment at Nuremberg.” When these projects never came to fruition, I was so disgusted that I buried my manuscript, especially since I had been told by a literary agent that if my story was a New York City story, he would sell it in the blink of an eye; but unfortunately Suffolk County, with a population of 1 million people, was “in the sticks,” and there would be no interest.
My very lovely wife had gone back to school after our daughter went to kindergarten, and earned both a bachelor’s and masters degree at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and went on to become a Family Court probation officer after passing a civil service exam. She loved her job, and never wanted to leave Suffolk County, but we both knew when it was time to leave. I believe she carried this feeling in her heart from the time we left our home after 25 years, where we had brought up three wonderful children. She died three years after we left New York.
Q: Why did you decide to publish the book more than 20 years later?
A: One year ago this month, at age 79, at Duke University I was diagnosed with “Stage 4, Large B Cell, non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.” I felt that I did not have long to live, although the cancer is now in remission, and I told my second wife, Nancy, and my daughter that I could not die without this story being told. I had, over the years, received hundreds of letters from prisoners from all over the country, as far away as Texas and Parchman in Mississippi, and from New York State, claiming innocence and seeking my help. We did a documentary called “A Question of Guilt” about young Martin Tankleff, sentenced in Suffolk County to two consecutive terms of 25 years to life for the murder of his adoptive parents, whom I believed was innocent. He spent 17 1/2 years in a maximum security prison and recently settled his case against the State of New York for $3.77 million with a second case pending against Suffolk County and certain individuals.
I didn’t expect to accomplish anything more than that this story had to be told.
Q: What has been the reaction to the book?
A: The reaction to the book has better than I could ever have imagined. Those who don’t know Suffolk County are shocked, and those who do are thrilled that someone is finally speaking out about the abuses in the criminal justice system in that county. I have been invited to speak at colleges, universities and law schools in both New York and North Carolina, and continue to do so.
Q: Do you still have contacts in Suffolk County?
A: I have very few contacts in Suffolk County, but for those who continue to write to me after more than 20 years, and a few attorneys who were willing to speak truth to power and who were the few who did not boycott the meeting of the two bar associations where I received the awards in 1993. One who did attend was my former law partner, who serves as a federal district court judge in Brooklyn.
Q: What would be the most effective way to make sure there aren’t any abuses in the criminal justice system?
A: Nothing can really change until New York State changes its method of electing trial judges through the political system. The courts must be taken out of the hands of the local politicians and political leaders to ensure justice and equality in the courts, and to get the most qualified persons on the bench. As a very decent man, a friend who was a senior judge, and a Democrat like myself, who was handling homicides, frankly stated when I asked him whether he would speak to the representatives of the SIC : “Stu, I can’t get involved. I have to run again next year!” I believe that says it all about New York’s system of electing trial judges.
Q: Do you think Suffolk County courts are unique? Is misconduct common in other parts of the state?
A: What happened in Suffolk County resulted from one party control of the political system. While I am not familiar with all the counties of New York State, there is no question in my mind that this could happen in any county where the judges are answerable to political leaders and/or the political party.
Q: One of the people you criticized called you a “bitter old man.” Are you bitter?
A: Yes, I am an old man. God willing, I will be 81 in October. The bitterness, if any, comes from the knowledge that my dream of becoming a judge since my days at City College was turned into a “nightmare.”
Q: Do you regret anything you did?
A: I absolutely have no regrets.
@|Jeff Storey can be contacted at email@example.com.