A Long Island man is set to be released from his 25-year sentence for child sexual assault because an Eastern District judge found that state prosecutors withheld evidence at trial about a detective’s long history of allegedly coercing and falsifying confessions.
Artemio Castellanos, who was convicted in 2006 of a criminal sexual act and sexual abuse, both in the first degree, must be released from prison unless prosecutors give him a new trial within 90 days, Judge Margo Brodie ruled.
In a 52-page opinion, Brodie granted Castellanos’ petition for a writ of habeas corpus. She said that the state decision to withhold documents alleging Nassau County Police Department Detective Edwin Trujillo had been “coercing and falsifying confessions was prejudicial to petitioner because petitioner’s trial counsel could have used the information to attack the validity of [his] confession.”
The habeas relief followed years of attempts to overturn Castellanos’ conviction.
In 2009, the Appellate Division, Second Department, rejected his appeal and the state Court of Appeals soon refused to grant leave to appeal. In 2013, the Nassau County Supreme Court denied his motion to vacate his conviction under New York Criminal Procedure Law §440.10.
Brodie’s opinion in Castellanos v. Kirkpatrick, 10-cv-5075, analyzed the 440 ruling in several respects and disagreed with that decision.
Castellanos’ habeas petition, in which he argued that he was being held in state custody in violation of his Fourth, Sixth, Eighth and 14th Amendment rights, centered on a confession that he allegedly gave to Trujillo after being picked up and interviewed in 2005.
According to Castellanos, who has been represented by the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, Trujillo, after a long interview in Spanish, read back to him a written confession but left out key parts of what had been set down.
Castellanos maintains that he cannot read, even in Spanish, and that Trujillo read aloud to him a statement but purposely failed to read aloud a portion in which Castellanos allegedly admitted to sexually abusing a 5-year-old boy with whom he was living in the Village of Freeport.
He argued that his confession was a key reason he was convicted, and that if prosecutors would have turned over information about Trujillo’s history of coercing and falsifying confessions from others, that evidence would have strengthened his argument at trial that his own confession was false.
Brodie agreed, writing that the withheld evidence was a clear violation of well-established law under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83.
“The likelihood that the jury’s knowledge of the allegations against Detective Trujillo could have affected the outcome of Petitioner’s case is bolstered by the fact that the confession was the only direct evidence that corroborated C.L.’s [the allegedly abused young boy's] unsworn testimony and statements that petitioner sexually abused him,” she wrote in her June 29 decision.
Further, Brodie pointed out the extent of the withheld evidence against Trujillo.
It included, she said, documents collected by the §440 state court about Trujillo’s alleged physical and other coercion and/or falsifying of confessions tied to separate criminal prosecutions of and civil suits brought by Jarol Escobar, Santos Castillo and Jose Martinez; a 2003 internal affairs tracking sheet on Trujillo showing that between 1992 and 2003 internal affairs investigated him on six different occasions; and a concise officer history, dated Aug. 7, 2013, that noted that 11 individuals lodged civilian complaints against Trujillo between 1992 and 2013.
David Bernstein, an appellate lawyer formerly with the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County who is now handling the case pro bono, said on Monday, “Mr. Castellanos is relieved and grateful that a court has finally recognized how the suppression of vital evidence prejudiced his case.”
Andrea DiGregorio, a prosecutor with the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, represented the respondent in the habeas matter, Robert Kirkpatrick, superintendent of Wende Correctional Facility, where Castellanos is incarcerated. In a statement Monday, DiGregorio’s office said that it is “reviewing all our options, and an appropriate decision on how we will proceed will be forthcoming.”