The last time Jabbar Collins asked a judge to order a new trial to prove that he wasn’t the one who had shot down a rabbi collecting rent on a Sunday afternoon in Bushwick in 1994, he earned only scorn.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Robert Holdman laughed the papers straight out of his courthouse. Collins’s claims that the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office had withheld massive amounts of information about the three witnesses whose testimony had sent him to prison, wrote Holdman, were “wholly without merit, conclusory, incredible, unsubstantiated, and, in significant part, to be predicated on a foundation of fraud.” The judge stopped just short of adding a few more years to the 34-to-life term that Collins was already serving just for wasting the court’s precious time.
Not that it necessarily had anything to do with it, but at the time of Holdman’s ruling, D.A. Charles J. Hynes was conducting a scorched-earth probe of judicial and political corruption that had the Brooklyn legal bench trembling. Three judges and the head of the Democratic Party already stood convicted. Grand juries were blitzing the borough with subpoenas. Court Street was in near-panic. Not that it had anything to do with it, but the Assistant D.A. accused by Collins of railroading him happened to be the same one overseeing this full-court investigative press, the head of the rackets division, one very tough and accomplished prosecutor named Michael Vecchione.
Last week, a different judge in a different Brooklyn courthouse had a very different take after reviewing Collins’s complaint. On the fourth floor of the federal court on Cadman Plaza, Judge Dora Irizarry treated three representatives of the D.A.’s Office to withering blasts: “I have to say the allegations made here are extremely troubling,” she said. “The whole history of this case is quite troubling.” She used the words “egregious” and “shocking” over and over. During the initial six-hour session on Collins’s writ of habeas corpus—that fundamental plank of justice that lets the unlawfully detained seek a hearing—Irizarry ticked off the allegations. There had been “misrepresentation to the jury on summation,” she said, “coercion of witnesses, and manipulation of other arms of the justice system.” It had started “from the very beginning of the case,” she said, repeating it in Latin to make sure her point was made: “Ab initio.”
Hynes’s representatives seemed taken aback. Prior to the hearing, the D.A.’s team had acknowledged that they had recently learned from a retired detective that, just as Collins had claimed, one of the witnesses had briefly recanted before the trial, something the defense was never told. The D.A. agreed that a new trial was warranted. In fact, since that would be so difficult, an offer was made to let Collins plead guilty to a lesser charge, time served. He would walk out of prison right away. He declined the offer.
Collins, 37, has always insisted he was not the one who gunned down Abraham Pollack, a father of nine children, on February 6, 1994, in the lobby of a building he owned on Graham Avenue near where Collins lived. He said so at his trial, where he was the lone witness in his own defense. A high school dropout, he studied law in prison, becoming such a skilled jailhouse lawyer that he once argued—by speakerphone—a motion in federal court for a fellow inmate at Green Haven prison. Tuesday was his first time outside prison walls in 15 years. Escorted by marshals, he stepped through a side door into the courtroom. He wore a white shirt and black horn-rimmed glasses. He beamed at his family seated in the gallery, his mother, his stepdad, his eight brothers and sisters, and two of his three children. They smiled and waved back.
He listened as Irizarry stated that she was not convinced that the defendant could get a fair trial in Brooklyn state court. This is what Collins’s current lawyer, Joel Rudin, has argued. She said she needed to hear more.
Throughout the three sessions last week concerning People of New York v. Jabbar Collins, the same nagging question kept knocking at the door: If top prosecutors could so ignore the rules of the road in this case, how many others are out there like it?
On Thursday, another of the original witnesses appeared in answer to Collins’s subpoena. Before taking the stand, Angel Santos had to be reassured that he faced no jeopardy for possible perjury charges from his 1995 testimony. He spoke at length with a court-appointed lawyer, then sat in the witness box, nervously rocking back and forth. Back then, he admitted, “I was into crack, coke, smoking, drinking. I was all screwed up.” The prosecutors who questioned him knew this, he said. This is a useful thing for attorneys to know, since when juries are told that a witness is a crackhead, it raises a question or two about credibility. Collins’s attorney was never so informed.
Nor was he told what prosecutors did to make Santos testify: “I didn’t want to get involved in all this,” Santos moaned repeatedly on Thursday. Shortly before the trial, he said, detectives picked him up and brought him to the D.A.’s Office. He didn’t recall everyone’s names, but the chief D.A. was someone named “Vecchio, Vecchione,” he said.
“He was yelling at me—he told me he was going to hit me over the head with a coffee table or something if I didn’t testify.” He was told that he risked going to prison. “I know it was a big number of years,” he said. Still, he balked. “That’s when they locked me up,” he said. One of Collins’s many Freedom of Information lawsuits later produced records showing that Vecchione went that same day to get a material witness warrant letting him hold Santos until the trial. It was one of two such warrants that prosecutors obtained, neither of which the defense was told about. In Santos’s case, he was held for a week in a cell at the Bronx House of Detention, then for several days more at a Holiday Inn in Queens (“Paradise,” Santos called it on Thursday). He was then brought to court to testify that on the day of the shooting, while calling 9-1-1, he had seen Collins run past him.
The trial transcript shows that Vecchione said that Santos was being held in “protective custody” because of threats made against him by people acting on Collins’s behalf. Santos was asked last week by Rudin if he recalled those threats. “No, sir,” he responded. He only remembered those made by the D.A. “They put the pressure on me,” he said.
There was also the matter of the 9-1-1 call that Santos said he had made. There is no record of it. That’s something else the defense didn’t know, since the tape was never provided. It also only surfaced from Collins’s jailhouse digging. On Thursday, the tape was played for Santos. Did he hear his own voice? “No, sir,” he answered.
In a sworn statement filed in response to Collins’s 2006 motion for retrial, the one Judge Holdman blew off, Vecchione stated that he never “intentionally” failed to turn over any tape. He also swore that there had been no undisclosed witness deals or recanted testimony. “No witness had to be threatened or forced to testify,” he added. The chief of the D.A.’s rackets division is due to testify before Irizarry on June 8. The jailhouse lawyer and his attorney have many more questions. The judge also appears eager to hear the answers.