Man jailed 2 years sues over Queens prosecutions

A Queens man who was released after spending more than two years in jail has filed a $50 million lawsuit against the district attorney, Richard A. Brown, and other city officials, saying the borough’s prosecutors have a “frightening history of appellate reversals for prosecutorial misconduct.”

The man, William Brunson, was arrested in 2005 and held at Rikers Island in connection with the armed robbery of a grocery after the store’s owner, Akmal Khan, selected his picture out of a six-man photo array.

When Mr. Brunson’s case finally went to trial this spring, Justice Richard L. Buchter of State Supreme Court in Queens was troubled by the withholding of exculpatory evidence, including a security video and Mr. Khan’s own statement that he never saw the robbers’ faces “due to the fact that their faces were covered with hoods,” which led a police officer to close the case three weeks after the robbery, according to court documents.

On May 21 of this year, when Mr. Khan was unable to identify Mr. Brunson in court, Justice Buchter dismissed the charges and released him. Mr. Brunson, 36, said more than two years on Rikers Island had left him homeless and struggling to find work in the construction trade, where he worked before his arrest.

“I don’t believe these men are above the law,” wrote Mr. Brunson in a formal grievance filed June 15 against the prosecutors. “In this case they broke the law. They took me from my six kids for 2 years and 44 days, when they knew all along there was no case against me.”

Kevin Ryan, a spokesman for the Queens district attorney, said he could not comment on the lawsuit because it is sealed and in litigation.

City lawyers are reviewing documents in the case, said Connie Pankratz, a spokeswoman for the Law Department.

The lawsuit casts Mr. Brunson’s case as part of a larger pattern, listing 84 cases in which criminal convictions obtained by Queens prosecutors were overturned by higher courts for prosecutorial misconduct. William T. Martin, Mr. Brunson’s lawyer, said he wanted to demonstrate that “this is pervasive; this is an ongoing civil rights violation in Queens.”

“Sometimes the bench becomes too closely aligned with the prosecution,” Mr. Martin said.

The case began Dec. 26, 2004, when two masked men burst into the Dipa Food Market and demanded cash, cigarettes and lottery tickets. A security camera recorded the episode, which lasted less than four minutes. Three weeks later, a police officer closed the case, concluding that Mr. Khan had never seen his assailants’ faces and could not identify them.

In April 2005, Mr. Brunson, who had previously been convicted of drug violations and robbery, was interviewed by police on suspicion of possessing stolen property. Though nothing came of those charges, the detective added Mr. Brunson’s face to a photo array and showed it to Mr. Khan, the lawsuit said. Mr. Khan identified Mr. Brunson as one of the assailants, and Mr. Brunson was charged with armed robbery and indicted by a grand jury.

Two months later, when an assistant district attorney, Charles N. Walsh, was required to supply the defense with any exculpatory material, he reported that such material was “not known to exist at this time,” according to the lawsuit. Mr. Martin did not learn about the videotape until 2006, when a prosecutor made a reference to it, and did not know that Mr. Khan had told officers the robbers’ faces were not visible.

At trial, Justice Buchter chided prosecutors for failing to provide that evidence to Mr. Martin, and warned that the omissions could be grounds for an appeal. When Mr. Khan took the stand and said he could not identify Mr. Brunson, Justice Buchter dismissed the charges.

Mr. Brunson said he had strenuously protested his innocence while in jail.

“I know I did crime in my life,” he said. “I can’t lie and say I didn’t. But those times I did the crime, I took a plea for the crime. It’s so different to be locked up for a crime you didn’t commit, a crime you didn’t know nothing about.”

Mr. Brunson added, “You shouldn’t have cops like these on the streets, who act like they’re above the law.”

A similar lawsuit was filed last year on behalf of Shih-Wei Su, who served 12 years in prison for a shooting at a Bayside pool hall. In 2003, a federal appeals court ruled that a Queens prosecutor misled the jury, who were not informed that a key witness testified against Mr. Su in exchange for receiving probation in a grand larceny case. Mr. Su was released and found work as a financial consultant in Manhattan.

Mr. Martin said the request for $50 million in damages was meant to attract attention to abuses. “I said $50 million in view of the fact that you’ve had 84 souls that have gone before my client,” he said, adding that one of Mr. Brunson’s children was born while he was in custody.

“Think about the birth of your child that you’ve been made to miss because of the mean-spiritedness of police and prosecutors,” he said. “What is the birth of your child worth?”

(Published by The New York Times, June 26, 2007)

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