The defendant in a fatal 2013 Flanders home invasion accepted a plea agreement Tuesday after his attorney learned that a prosecutor had failed to turn over more than 100 pages of notes related to the investigations — including evidence that others had confessed to the murder.
Rather than allow the trial to proceed further and risk losing a conviction, the district attorney’s office offered Messiah Booker a plea deal, which he accepted. Mr. Booker will serve five years on a reduced charge of second-degree burglary related to the Jan. 27, 2013, shooting of 21-year-old Demitri Hampton. The second-degree murder charge Mr. Booker previously faced, which carried a possible life sentence, was dismissed.
Suffolk County Supreme Court Judge John Collins said in court that it was apparent there was “serious misconduct in the prosecution of [Mr. Booker].”
Mr. Hampton’s mother, Juanita Trent, sobbed as she left the Riverhead courtroom, escorted by her other son, Jamal Davis.
“My heart is broken,” Ms. Trent wrote in a handwritten statement to the News-Review after learning of the plea deal. “My God is a just God. My faith still not shaken. Only my disappointment in the court system.”
Robert Clifford, a spokesman for District Attorney Thomas Spota, issued a statement calling the conduct of the prosecutor, Glenn Kurtzrock, “inexcusable.”
The district attorney asked for Mr. Kurtzrock’s resignation and he complied, Mr. Clifford said.
“The conduct of the assigned prosecutor in this case was inexcusable, resulting in further pain to the family of Demitri Hampton — and our prosecutors work tirelessly to make sure that does not happen,” Mr. Clifford said.
“Unfortunately in this case, we failed with a devastating result,” he said.
Janet Albertson, chief of the Suffolk DA homicide bureau, told the judge in the courtroom that prosecutors felt they were no longer able to prove the murder charge beyond a reasonable doubt. She also said that prosecutors did their best to explain the outcome to the Hampton family “to the extent that they could possibly understand.” Mr. Kurtzrock had stood before the judge until the moment the plea hearing began, at which point he took a seat in the audience and Ms. Albertson took over.
The startling turn of events began to unfold last Wednesday before the testimony of Suffolk County Police Department homicide detective Brendan O’Hara, when Mr. Booker’s attorney, Brendan Ahern of Hauppauge, noticed a nearly two-year gap in the notes that had been turned over to him before the trial commenced. After Judge Collins ordered the missing records to be shared last week, Mr. Ahern received more than 125 pages of notes from four detectives that included the names of witnesses never before disclosed and evidence that other people had confessed to the murder before Mr. Booker and three co-defendants were arrested, Mr. Ahern said during Tuesday’s hearing.
“The delivery I received from homicide included pages of notes roughly the size of two phone books stacked several inches high,” Mr. Ahern told the judge during the proceeding, for which the jury was not present. “[The prosecution] systematically and deliberately violated the Constitutional right of my client for a fair trial.”
Mr. Ahern added that while the prosecution may believe it was a case of sloppiness that led to the failure to include certain notes, he believed the evidence was “surgically removed” from the files he received. In his argument Monday, which was cut short by a lunch recess, and never continued after plea negotiations began again, Mr. Ahern said Mr. Kurtzrock told him the notes contained no relevant information.
Mr. Ahern argued that “the fact that multiple other people confessed should have been disclosed at arraignment.”
Before the plea agreement, the revelation about the additional documents brought the trial to a sudden halt. Judge Collins told jurors not to even show up Friday to give Mr. Ahern time to review the documents. Jurors were sent home again Monday afternoon when it became clear no testimony would occur that day. Plea negotiations took place at that time, but no agreement was struck before the end of the court day, ending any hope the prosecution might have had of preventing Mr. Ahern’s presentation.
For about two hours during Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Ahern detailed many facts about the investigation that had never been disclosed to him. Then, during a lunch recess, plea negotiations resumed and Mr. Booker accepted the prosecution’s offer, leaving audience members in a state of disbelief.
At the start of the plea hearing, Judge Collins noted that the prosecution’s case “had been severely diminished.”
Outside the courtroom, Mr. Ahern said: “What became apparent was that the very concentrated and strong arguments we were making were without the benefit of substantial information about others.”
Mr. Booker, who stated on the first day of jury selection that he did not want Mr. Ahern to represent him and indicated he wouldn’t appear at the trial, will be formally sentenced June 9. He ended up attending the remaining days of the trial and said “yes” when Judge Collins asked during the plea hearing if he was satisfied with his representation.
“You should be,” the judge commented.
Mr. Booker is currently still serving time on a prior weapons conviction. That sentence ends later this month.
Testimony in the trial began April 25 when prosecutors opened by arguing that Mr. Booker, 32, had fired the fatal shot. Mr. Ahern countered that Corry Wallace, a co-defendant in the case who had already accepted a plea deal in exchange for testimony, was the gunman. Mr. Wallace was to be sentenced to 20 years. It’s unclear how Tuesday’s events might impact that sentence — or the cases pending against co-defendants Michael Parrish and Danielle Hall.
Mr. Wallace testified May 1 that Mr. Booker fired the bullet and admitted to pleading guilty in a deal that reduced the charges against him from second-degree murder to manslaughter in exchange for that testimony.
The prosecution had also introduced cellphone records that aimed to place the defendants at the scene of the crime.
Mr. Hampton, a Riverhead High School graduate, had been playing video games in the living room of a Priscilla Avenue home where he often stayed when armed intruders burst through the front door seeking drugs and money, according to testimony in the trial. He was shot and killed after attempting to stop the burglary.
Top photo caption: Demitri Hampton celebrates receiving his diploma from Riverhead High School during the school’s 2010 graduation. (Credit: Tracey Crump courtesy)