Thursday, February 6, 2020

New York Police Try To Pin Gang Witness's Death on Criminal Justice Reforms

By Scott Shackford - February 06, 2020 at 12:30PM

When Wilmer Maldonado Rodriguez, 36, was found dead Sunday in New Cassel, New York, police and prosecutors quickly went to work—not just on solving the crime, but on trying to blame recent reforms to how information is shared with criminal defendants.

Rodriguez had been attacked and stabbed, allegedly by members of gang MS-13, in 2018, and he had agreed to testify against his attackers. He died right as the cases move forward against three alleged assailants. If MS-13 was responsible, there are a number of ways it could have tracked down Rodriguez. But Nassau County police and prosecutors were quick to the lay the blame on the "discovery" laws that came into effect with the new year.

Discovery rules guide how evidence must be shared between police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. Until this year, New York had notoriously secretive rules that allowed prosecutors to withhold evidence from the defense until the last possible moment. Prosecutors and police insisted this was necessary to protect witnesses from retaliation. Defense attorneys pointed out that this also prevented them from preparing for trial, and that it was used to force defendants to accept plea deals without knowing what evidence the state had against them. (For some comparisons to other states, scroll down to page 22 in this New York Civil Liberties Union analysis.)

The changes that New York just implemented put the state in line with most of the rest of the country, but you wouldn't know that from the screaming. Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder held a press conference Wednesday to blame the new discovery rules for Rodriguez's death. According to Newsday, Ryder said that harassment of Rodriguez began after the new discovery law forced prosecutors to give Rodriguez's name to defense attorneys.

But Ryder eventually had to acknowledge that there was no evidence linking the new rules to Rodriguez's death. Under the revised laws, prosecutors are still able to ask judges for protective orders to seal the identities of witnesses if releasing the information could put them in danger. Prosecutors had done so here, and a judge had kept the information sealed until December. Then the judge disclosed the names to defense attorneys, but under orders not to share the names until the trials began.

So the only way the new discovery rules could be responsible for Rodriguez's death would be if the defense attorneys violated the judge's orders and shared them with the defendants. That's quite an accusation to be making without evidence. And indeed, after saying we "don't know if the defense counsel turned that info over to the defendants," Ryder later in the day issued a statement acknowledging there was "no direct link between the death of Wilmer Maldonado Rodriguez and criminal justice reform." Attorneys representing two of the defendants have denied sharing the witnesses' names with their clients.

Even though there's no evidence at this point linking the murder to the reforms, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas still put out a statement subtly attacking the changes: "This case underscores the importance of safeguarding the identities of witnesses and victims of crime and our hearts are with Mr. Maldonado's family and friends as we grieve his loss."

To reiterate, New York's new discovery laws aren't taking case information-sharing into some wild, unheard-of space. It puts it in line with the vast majority of other states (including Texas and Florida, not exactly known for coddling defendants) by requiring that this information be disclosed to defense teams. The new rules should not be "controversial." They're the national norm. But police and prosecutors are using this unfortunate death to make it appear as though these rules are outrageously lax and a danger to the community. Don't fall for it.


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