The high-profile prosecution in Brooklyn of an Orthodox Jew accused of paying a victim to lie about sexual abuse likely will fall apart, as prosecutors told the judge that their main witness was not credible.
The dramatic turnabout in the prosecution of Sam Kellner, who had aided prosecutors in pursuing a conviction on sex abuse charges of Baruch Lebovits, took place just as his trial was about to begin. In the wake of the disclosure, a campaign opponent of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes quickly called on Hynes to fire Michael Veccione, a top prosecutor overseeing the case. (Hynes and Vecchione are pictured at right.)
Kellner had alleged that Lebovits molested his son, and found other victims of the Hasidic cantor. Lebovits was convicted in March 2010. Subsequent to that, one of the victims told prosecutors he had testified only because Kellner had paid him $10,000. Kellner was also accused of attempting to extort $400,000 from Lebovits in exchange for keeping other children quiet.
Last year, Lebovits’s conviction was overturned by an appellate court which ruled that prosecutors didn’t turn over a detective’s notes to the defense until the middle of the trial. A retrial is pending.
Yesterday, things got worse as prosecutors told Judge Ann Donnelly that their main witness against Kellner took money from Lebovits’s backers. The witness used the money to pay legal fees, to travel, pay his rent and tuition. Kellner’s lawyers reportedly had given evidence to the D.A.’s office that the witness was being “manipulated” by the Lebovits backers.
Donnelly order a delay in the trail until the end of this month.
All in all, a fairly ugly outcome to a case that drew major attention both in the Jewish and mainstream press. In the past, Hynes has been accused of taking it easy on sexual abuse cases in the orthodox community. He at one point refused to disclose the names of people from the community arrested on sex charges. Hynes countered that it was difficult to get cooperation from the community, which made it harder to make cases.
Now, it seems he had one wing of his office pursuing Lebovits, and another pursuing Kellner, with both relying on a drug-addicted witness. The contradiction is striking, and recalls the case of robbery suspect Ronald Bozeman.
In that case, Brooklyn prosecutors convinced two different grand juries to indict two different men as the same robber. Prosecutors also withheld evidence of Bozeman’s innocence for months from the defense despite repeated requests. The charges against Bozeman were eventually tossed, but not until he had needlessly spent a year in jail.
There are more problems with the Kellner prosecution. The New York Times reports that some in Hynes’s office are wondering whether Lebovits’ lawyer, a former Brooklyn prosecutor named Aruthur Aidala, was allowed too much influence. Aidala made allegations against Kellner to Vecchione, the controversial head of Hynes’s rackets division. Aidala has made campaign contributions to Hynes, and is the vice president of Hynes’s nonprofit foundation, the Times reported.
Vecchione was also at the center of the Jabbar Collins case. Collins served 16 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Collins produced evidence that witnesses had been coerced. A federal judge slammed Vecchione’s handling of the case, saying he was “disturbed” that Hynes didn’t punish him. Vecchione was instead promoted, and is now featured prominently in the fawning new reality TV series Brooklyn D.A.
Several weeks ago, evidence in Collins’s lawsuit emerged that Hynes’s office held witnesses in hotel rooms against their will without judicial approval, and made falsely sworn applications for warrants to arrest people who were only possible witnesses.
Hynes’s campaign opponent, former federal prosecutor and defense lawyer Ken Thompson, says the Kellner case, on top of the Collins case and others, should be all the evidence needed for Hynes to fire Vecchione.
“With a record tarnished by wrongful convictions and unprecedented condemnation from judges, D.A. Hynes has become the nation’s number one example for prosecutorial misconduct,” Thompson said. “There is something very disturbing about Hynes’ judgment when he promotes a prosecutor who has botched one case after the next, and whose alleged misconduct–including the coercion of false testimony, lies in court and intimidation of witnesses–caused a man to have been likely wrongfully imprisoned for over 15 years. Enough is enough.”