After outcry from civil rights and defense advocacy groups, Nassau County officials have walked back statements that pinned the murder of a Long Island witness in a gang trial to the state's newly enacted bail reform and discovery laws.
Wilmer Maldonado Rodriguez, 36, was found beaten to death in New Cassel Sunday. He was a protected witness in an upcoming trial where he would have testified against his alleged MS-13 attackers about a previous assault he saw in 2018.
Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder initially blamed Rodriguez's death on the state's new discovery laws that require prosecutors to share evidence -- including names of witnesses -- no later than 15 days after arraignment as part of the pre-trial process.
“We’re asking Albany to go back, rethink it, come back then with changes to that law,” Ryder said at a press conference Wednesday. “But it needs to happen quickly, before we have another victim, as in this case."
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat who has spoken out against the reforms, also initially linked Rodriguez's death to the discovery policy changes.
“We cannot let another murder happen because a witness may have been disclosed. Change this law now!" she said in a statement Wednesday.
Lawyers for the defendants Denis Pineda and Elian Ramos Velasquez have vehemently denied revealing Rodriguez's name to their clients. News reports say that the two defendants were never told the witnesses' names -- an agreement on January 6th between the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office and the defense attorneys referred to witnesses as numbers, and that an order for protection for Rodriguez had not been violated.
By Wednesday night, Ryder had released a terse follow-up statement: “As I (indicated) at my press conference there is no direct link between the death of Wilmer Maldonado Rodriguez and criminal justice reform. The information and facts of the case that I provided are accurate”.
In a phone interview with Gothamist on Friday, Curran said, "I think that everyone needs to take a step back and sort of look at what happened. It's still not clear. I think the facts are continuing to come out. But I do believe that the outcry over so many of the changes in the law is evidence of the tremendous amount of anxiety and frustration that many of our communities and law enforcement officials are feeling. I believe that we all need to take a deep breath and figure out what are the necessary changes to the criminal justice reform?"
Advocates for the new reforms said the rush to blame was exploitative.
The Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, the Legal Aid Society of New York, Brooklyn Defender Services, the Bronx Defenders, the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Innocence Project & Citizen Action of New York issued a joint statement Wednesday that read:
“The tragic death of Mr. Maldonado (Rodriguez) is, unequivocally, not the result of the new discovery laws. It is extremely disturbing that law enforcement officials are exploiting this murder to try to discredit the discovery laws, which after decades of wrongful convictions have finally been amended to match those of the rest of the country. Under the pre-existing and current discovery laws, judges have a great deal of discretion and authority to order a variety of protective measures, including not disclosing witness information, not providing contact information for witnesses or any other remedy deemed appropriate. These statements by law enforcement are again another attempt to use lies and misrepresentations to create the illusion that the new laws are a danger to public safety."
Along with Curran, some Democrats have also called for amending the reforms as well. During his weekly appearance on WNYC's Brian Lehrer show, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the increases in crime during the first month of 2020 were the result of the bail reform, though he did not offer any hard evidence to back up his assertions.
"There really do not appear to be a lot of other contributing factors at this moment," de Blasio said. "I'm not saying it's the only factor, I'm saying it sort of stands out like a sore thumb that this is the single biggest new thing in the equation."
He added, "you see an uptick like this, without any other major factors that we see have changed, against the backdrop of six years in a row crime has gone down. Of course there's always the possibility of just plain statistical variation. But I think it's pretty clear there's only one major new piece in the equation."
With Christopher Robbins