In an ideal world, prosecutors would be interested in seeking the truth. They would be committed to finding justice as quickly as possible and would realize the validity of the maxim, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
We don’t live in an ideal world. In the world we inhabit prosecutors often forsake justice in the pursuit of political popularity. Often the results are devastating for the innocent.
In the fall of 2013, a melee broke out just outside of a Bronx nightclub were Aaron Cedres was employed as a bouncer. Cedres, a 6’4”, 350-pound guard dog on two legs raced into a confusing pile of twelve people. One man’s jaw was broken, and he was slashed on his head and back.
Thirty-days later, Cedres was charged with gang assault. The 25-year old father, with no criminal record, suddenly faced 25-years behind bars. The nightclub had cameras posted around the exterior, and the prosecutor claimed the tapes “looked bad” for Cedres.
Offered a plea deal, Cedres faced five-years behind bars if he confessed. Claiming he threw one punch to break up two men, Cedres encouraged his attorney to get the footage.
Cedres was battling entrenched legal practices and prosecutors who were more interested in another notch than the truth. New York is one of ten states where prosecutors can wait until just before a trial starts to hand over witness names and statements during discovery. That practice delays justice and numerous critics all the familiar game of brinkmanship unfair and unnecessary.
Some discovery — such as video footage — is required to be turned over on request. Inept, inefficient or corrupt — sometimes all three — prosecutors counter, delay or ignore the defense requests. The result is persons as Cedres are driven into a high-stakes poker game, and the odds are against them. Either the defendant pleads guilty without seeing the evidence, or they risk a trial which may end up in a prison sentence.
Often, persons take the deal. The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services says over 98% of felony arrests which end in convictions come about through a guilty plea and not a trial.
Since the 1970s, legislation to mandate prosecutors turn over evidence has run into brick walls erected by New York’s district attorneys. Over twelve similar bills have died in the past 25-years.
Political winds can be arbitrary and may be showing signs of changing, and a new effort is on to push state legislators to overhaul state discovery rules.
What Happened to Mr. Cedras?
His attorney, Kristin Bruan, pushed to see the video of the fight. “Without that video, our client was heading to prison,” Bruan told The NY Times.
Bruan filed a motion for discovery, and the prosecution had fifteen days to hand the video over or explain why it couldn’t. Fifteen days passed and no reply. Then 30-days.
Over two-months after Bruan’s first request, the prosecutor wrote the video “doesn’t show anything,” Bruan pushed back, and after waiting five more months, the video showed up in her email. When Cedres’ attorneys reviewed it, it showed precisely what Cedres had said it would.
After eighteen months and twenty-two court appearances, the charges were dropped.
The Bronx District Attorney’s office refused to comment.