By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Bigweha crack dealer, chronic pothead, and career criminalwas the government's star witness in a case that the former prosecutor said appeared "shaky" heading into trial.
Unfortunately for Bolt, that word could also be applied to his choice of lawyer. After Bolt was arrested, his mother, Melba Pickersgill, had called the only attorney she knew: Joseph Dorsa, now a state judge, whose elderly mother Pickersgill, a home health-care aide, cared for. Dorsa recommended his then partner, Dominic Villoni.
Villoni was known as a journeyman attorney, handling everything from house closings to foreclosures to a variety of criminal cases. He was not on the A-list of the city's top criminal defenders, though his $80,000 fee (most of Pickersgill's retirement savings) was on par with their rates.
"Very nice man," the former prosecutor says. "But he shouldn't have been handling this murder case."
The lead prosecutor was the antithesis of Villoni. Diminutive Brad Leventhal is a pit bull of a prosecutor. Several people interviewed for this story say he reminds them of Joe Pesci's character in My Cousin Vinny. Leventhal tries big cases and wins almost all of them. Sometimes, the record shows, Leventhal goes too far.
Last year, the state Appellate Division overturned one of Leventhal's convictions, citing "repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct during cross examination of a defense witness and upon summation." The case involved a defendant who claimed that a friend who had borrowed his car was the one who got into a shoot-out with police, not him. The appellate court found that among other "misconduct," Leventhal presented "himself as an unsworn witness at trial . . . suggesting that the defense counsel did not believe his own client." Leventhal also implied that key evidence had been kept from the jury due to legal technicalities. "This misconduct should not be repeated at the defendant's retrial," the ruling admonished.
According to the transcript of Bolt's trial, Villoni was overmatched. As Bigweh took the stand against Bolt, Villoni had no idea that the informant's relationship with the prosecution had been through some trying times. A month after the Davis-Epstein murders, Bigweh attempted suicide by overdosing on aspirin and was hospitalized. He was upset that instead of a get-out-of-jail-free card, the prosecutor was talking prison time, and, after recovering, Bigweh refused to cooperate, says George Bell's attorney, Mitchell Dinnerstein. Shortly after Bell was sentenced to life, however, Bigweh struck a plea agreement: five years for attempted robbery instead of a potential 50 for accessory to double murder. Villoni tells the Voice that he knew nothing at the time about Bigweh's suicide attempt or cooperation flip-flop.
On the stand, Bigweh repeated a story about Bell and Johnson recruiting him after a chance meeting and how Bolt and Bell entered Epstein's store that morning holding guns. Bigweh said he couldn't see who did the shooting. (Bolt contends that Bigweh identified him instead of Page as "Roti" because he was afraid of Page.)
Villoni referred to Bigweh, who admitted to smoking 12 joints a day, as a "walking marijuana humidor" during summation, but on cross-examination the attorney did little to shake Bigweh's testimony.
Bolt's attorney also fell victim to an O.J. momentin reverse. With Bolt on the stand in his own defense, prosecutor Leventhal asked him, "Do you own a Third Rail mesh hat?" Bolt said no. Then Leventhal pulled the ball cap out of an evidence bag and asked Bolt if he recognized it. Bolt replied, "It's my son's hat. It was in my van. I had it on when they arrested me." Leventhal then told Bolt to "put it on." Without a peep from Villoni, Bolt complied. It fit.
In his closing argument, Leventhal mocked Bolt's explanation: " 'Oops, I forgot, I was wearing it that day. Oh, yeah, that's my son's hat . . . . My 12-year-old son, that is his hat. It just happens to fit me.' "
The only independent eyewitness the prosecution put up, Gregory Turnbull, was across the street on a pay phone, at least 170 feet away, when he witnessed the robbery. On the day of the murders, Turnbull was questioned and made to look at mug shots for 11 hours. But he said he couldn't recognize the robbers because they had hoods on. Nevertheless, Turnbull was brought in to view lineups the day after Christmas. In Bolt's lineup, Turnbull said he didn't recognize anyone. An hour later, Turnbull told Bovino he thought he recognized Bolt but didn't speak up because he was scared that Bolt could see him through the two-way mirrored glass. (Turnbull declines to talk to the Voice about the case; Bigweh was deported to Liberia four years ago.)
In closing arguments, Leventhal tried to answer some basic questions not addressed by the scant evidence presented. Bolt's motive, he told the jury, was financial troubles, though nothing had been introduced to back that up. He told jurors that a woman was the first to identify Bolt as "Roti" and led police to him. Presumably he was referring to Sister Lovely, but he never named her or had her testify.
Then Leventhal turned to the hat. He told the jury that he could understand they might be hesitant to trust Bigweh because he's a "criminal." But he was telling the truth, Leventhal argued, and the hat proved it. When Bigweh was arrested on December 23, 1996, Leventhal argued, he told detectives that Bolt was wearing a blue-and-red Third Rail baseball cap during the robbery. "A day and a half later," Leventhal told the jurors, "when he's arrested, what's he [Bolt] wearing? A Third Rail mesh hat with a red stripe. . . . How do you explain that? . . . [Bigweh] is clairvoyant? He's Kreskin now? Or is he telling you what he saw the defendant wearing on December 21st of 1996?"