A group that works to exonerate people wrongfully convicted has filed a lawsuit in the Appellate Division of New York State Supreme Court seeking full public disclosure of disciplinary proceedings against former Suffolk County prosecutor Glenn Kurtzrock.
Former district attorney Thomas Spota called for Mr. Kurtzrock’s resignation in May 2017 during the trial of Messiah Booker, the man accused of firing the fatal shot in the 2013 Flanders home invasion that led to the death of Demitri Hampton.
Mr. Booker was offered a plea deal after his attorney, Brendan Ahearn, discovered that Mr. Kurtzrock had failed to turn over key evidence that might have implicated other suspects as perpetrators, a violation of the courts’ Brady rules, which require prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense.
In its filing, the Innocence Project argues that the grievance committee for the Tenth Judicial District should allow full public access to Mr. Kurtzrock’s misconduct and disciplinary records.
“The public has a right to an attorney discipline process that is transparent, efficient and produces just results, especially for the most serious types of misconduct committed by lawyers who hold public office,” Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney for the Innocence Project, said in a statement.
During Mr. Booker’s trial, Mr. Ahearn noticed that a detective’s notes “jumped from a point in 2013 to a point in 2015,” according to the filing.
Suffolk County Justice John Collins subsequently ordered Mr. Kurtzrock to turn over the requested materials, which included hundreds of pages of police notes related to the investigation. The suit alleges that Mr. Kurtzrock “cherry-picked pages from police notes to conceal the fact that the police were informed that another individual named ‘DeShawn’ and his family [were] likely responsible for the murder for which Booker was on trial” and withheld pages containing an interview with an eyewitness who “believed an individual may have had some connection to the incident.”
Mr. Booker is currently serving a five-year sentence on a reduced charge of second-degree burglary. The second-degree murder charge he previously faced, which carried a possible life sentence, was dismissed after another ADA admitted that “it would appear based upon the record that we will be unable to prove that count beyond a reasonable doubt” in court.
Justice Collins said at the time that it was apparent there was “serious misconduct in the prosecution of [Mr. Booker]” and referred to the end result as a “travesty of justice.”
At the time, the DA’s office, which characterized his conduct as “inexcusable,” began an internal review of all of Mr. Kurtzrock’s cases. That review revealed he had committed similar Brady violations while prosecuting a case against Shawn Lawrence in 2015.
Mr. Lawrence, who was convicted of murder for a 2010 Amityville shooting, was six years into a 75-years-to-life prison sentence when he was released after the DA’s investigation uncovered 45 pieces of evidence that were withheld from the defense.
District Attorney Tim Sini’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
To date, no charges have been brought against Mr. Kurtzrock, who is now in private practice as a defense attorney and touts his experience as a “former homicide prosecutor” on his website.
Reached by phone last Wednesday, Mr. Kurtzrock forwarded a reporter’s inquiry to his attorney, David Besso of Bay Shore, who did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Innocence Project officials expressed concern that Mr. Kurtzrock is continuing to practice law.
“[Mr. Kurtzrock] held a position of enormous trust and power and the courts have already found that he repeatedly and intentionally violated the law,” said Gregory Diskant, lead counsel on the case for the Innocence Project. “Yet two years later, he remains fully licensed to practice, and the public has no information as to whether the Grievance Committee is even seeking to discipline him,” he wrote in a statement.
A woman who answered the phone at the grievance committee office also declined to comment on the matter.
While the grievance committee usually keeps its proceedings sealed unless legal action is pursued, the Innocence Project argues in a legal brief that details of Mr. Kurtzrock’s misconduct have already been published in media reports and thus do not risk damaging his reputation.
Jamal Davis, Mr. Hampton’s older brother, said he was surprised to learn that Mr. Kurtzrock was still practicing law privately.
He said in the months after the trial abruptly came to an end, he and his mother, Juanita Trent, wrote to the New York State Bar Association. “We had concerns about why he wasn’t disbarred,” Mr. Davis said.
Ultimately, the bar association responded and found insufficient reason to stop Mr. Kurtzrock from practicing.
“At the end of the day, he caused our family a lot of suffering and pain,” Mr. Davis said last Thursday, recalling a sense of betrayal felt in the courtroom that day. Justice, Mr. Davis said, has still not been served.
Reflecting on the outcome two years later, Mr. Davis believes that all of the evidence should have been included, despite having a strong case against Mr. Booker. “If you’re not prepared to go to trial with what you have, don’t go to trial,” he said, adding that the judge and jury should have had the last word.
A new set of criminal justice reform laws passed by state lawmakers in April included changes to the state’s discovery laws, which had not been updated since 1979.
The new rules, which take effect in January 2020, will no longer require defense attorneys to file requests for discovery and will instead require that evidence, including grand jury testimony and police reports, be turned over automatically 15 days after an indictment. In addition to the 15-day rule, prosecutors will be required to turn over information to defendants at least three days prior to the deadline for accepting a plea deal.