By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
If Malik Truesdale had done the math after Queens judge Arthur Cooperman slapped him with a 15-years-to-life sentence two summers ago, he might have realized that he'd received at least a year in prison for every $1.47 he stole.
On June 3, 2004, undercover cops on a pickpocket task force spotted Truesdale, now 38, riding on the Q27 city bus in Flushing. They knew what Truesdale was up tothey had arrested him before. They watched as he bumped into 72-year-old Jeng Gang Chi while simultaneously dipping his hand, which he had covered in a sweatshirt, into the old man's pocket. The cops grabbed Truesdale and found the man's wallet, which contained a total of $22. The victim didn't even know it had been taken.
Karen Kalikow, Truesdale's Legal Aid Society attorney, said that Queens prosecutors originally offered him a plea deal of eight months. Truesdale stupidly turned it down. So prosecutors then petitioned for Truesdale to be treated as a persistent felony offender. The designation increases the punishment in a conviction, but requires that in addition to a history of two or more past felonies, a judge must believe "that the history and character of the defendant and the nature and circumstances of his criminal conduct indicate that extended incarceration and life-time supervision will best serve public interest."
Truesdale was found guilty in June 2005 of grand larceny, possession of stolen property, three counts of jostling (bumping into the attended victim), and possession of a burglar's tools (the sweatshirt). In a hearing to determine if Truesdale was a persistent felony offender, his trial lawyer argued that his crimes were nonviolent and were committed only to feed drug and alcohol addictions that Truesdale was seeking help to control. Cooperman wasn't swayed, ruling that Truesdalewho by then had served four state-prison stints under three different namesdeserved the "persistent" tag, and sentencing him to 15 years to life on the top charge and a year each, to run concurrently, on the other five counts.
The 73-year-old Cooperman is known for his harsh sentences. In 1992, Cooperman gave a 16-year-old defendant three to nine years in state prison for mugging Donald Trump's mother, prompting the youth's attorney to complain that his client had received a harsher penalty because of the case's high profile. (Cooperman will also preside over the trials of three police officers involved in the shootings of Sean Bell and his two friends, three unarmed men who had been celebrating the night before Bell's wedding.)
But last month, citing "the interest of justice," the state Appellate Division modified Truesdale's sentence. The Appellate Division ruled that Cooperman's "persistent offender" determination was incorrectly based "solely upon the defendant's criminal record of misdemeanors and low-level felonies involving primarily pickpocketing offenses" and reduced Truesdale's sentence to two to four years. Because of the reduction, Truesdale, who is still in prison, is immediately eligible for parole, although it's unclear when that hearing will take place. Kalikow says her office is lining up counseling, a job, and housing for Truesdale once he's released.
Judge Cooperman declined to comment on the case. Kalikow said, "My sense from the [appellate decision] was the judges were looking at this case and saying, 'This guy is a pickpocketthere's no violence in his background. He doesn't deserve a lifetime sentence for being a pickpocket.' "
Especially one so bad at it.