[Queens District Attorney Race]
Councilman Rory Lancman says he will “directly confront the racism” if elected Queens DA…
Photo: Hannah Jeffrey
Councilman Lancman told the Black Star News he’s the best candiate because he will “confront racism” in criminal justice…
On Tuesday, Councilman Rory Lancman told the Black Star News he’s the best candidate to be the next Queens District Attorney because “I’m the one most willing to directly confront the racism and discrimination against poor people that permeates the criminal justice system.”
Lancman is running against six other candidates in the June 25 primary race. The other six candidates are: Tiffany Cabán, Mina Malik, Jose Nieves, Betty Lugo, Judge Gregory Lasak, and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.
During a Black Star News interview, Lancman made his case for why he thinks he is the best qualified to run the Queens District Attorney’s Office. We talked with the councilman about several things of crucially importance to Blacks and Latinos related to the criminal justice system. The Chantel Lewis case was our first topic.
The Black Star News reminded Lancman about comments he made during a NY1 Spectrum News debate, when he said “This is a case that has all the echoes of another Central Park Five case. And I have no problem saying that here and commit to the people of Queens that I will look at this case carefully to make sure that an injustice is not being done.”
We asked the councilman in particular about reviewing Lewis’ case if he becomes Queens District Attorney.
“That case needs to be reviewed from start to finish,” said Lancman. “Both the investigation phase where they rounded up hundreds of Black men and compelled them to give DNA swabs and now, they are in a DNA database that they can’t get themselves out off–to Mr. Lewis’s confession which seems designed to coerce him and deceive him into confessing.” Lancman also mentioned the appearance of impropriety by Judge Michael Aloise “in seemingly, identifying himself openly with the victim’s family in a way that raises questions about his own bias.”
During Lewis’ trial, City Limits reporter, Theodore Hamm, accused Judge Aloise of wearing purple ties in the courtroom to show solidarity with the family of murder victim Karina Vetrano.
Lancman also criticized Judge Aloise’s “failure to provide the jury with access to the videotape confession. And allowing them to continue to deliberate before that videotaped confession was made available to them.” The councilman said because of the behavior of the NYPD, prosecutors, and Judge Aloise that the Lewis case needs to be thoroughly reviewed.
“So, I think there are a lot of aspects of that trial, that as district attorney, I would examine,” said Lancman. “To determine whether or not Mr. Lewis really did receive a fair trial and whether or not his confession is something that should be even admitted into evidence at a trial.”
During a recent Hot 97 Radio interview, Lancman commented that “People need to understand that wrongful convictions happen not just because you have a corrupt or venal prosecutor, police officer. The whole system is built on coercing people to pleading guilty to crimes that they did not commit.”
The Black Star News asked Lancman to elaborate on this stunningly statement:
“From the moment the police arrest someone the criminal justice system that exists today, in particular in Queens, is built to convict that person of some crime,” said Lancman. “So, it starts with people being overcharged. Then it sends people to Rikers Island because they can’t afford cash bail. And we know that people stuck on Rikers Island will do whatever they have to do to get themselves off Rikers Island, including pleading guilty to an offence that will give them a sentence of time served, or, will give them a shorter sentence than they might otherwise be facing.”
Councilman Lancman painted a horrid picture of how indigent defendants, and others with drug and mental problems, are often manipulated into pleading guilty in Queens.
“In Queens, if you have a drug addiction issue and you wanna get access to treatment, you are first required to plead guilty before you can get into the treatment program,” said Lancman. “You are required to waive your right to a speedy indictment if you want to be able to ultimately have a meaningful plea bargain negotiation and be able to plead to anything other than the top count in the indictment. You will not have access to the evidence, or, the witness statements against you until the very start of your trial. And so, every aspect of the criminal justice process and the criminal justice system in Queens, is built to confirm that the police arrested the right person for the right crime. As opposed to a system that is designed to determine whether or not the right person has been arrested for the crime that they have been charged with and to treat that person’s mental illness, or addiction, or extreme poverty for what they are, as opposed to criminalizing them.”
Lancman shared more about just how bad it is in Queens.
“Queens sends more people to Rikers Island for misdemeanor offences than any other borough,” said Lancman. “Queens refuses to take its foot off the gas when it comes to prosecuting low-level offences like marijuana possession or fare-evasion. Queens makes you plead guilty before you can participate in a drug treatment program. So, Queens is ground zero for the incarcerable punitive approach to criminal justice.”
The Black Star News next asked about police accountability.
“Well the reason that Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mom, and Valerie Bell, Sean Bell’s mom, are supporting me is because they know that I will hold police officers accountable for violence against civilians, or any other form of misconduct,” said Lancman. “And as a councilmember, I have consistently pushed the police department to be more accountable, to be more transparent.” Councilman Lancman also referenced two lawsuits he has against Police Commissioner James O’Neill. “I now have two lawsuits against Police Commissioner O’Neill, over a law that they are not complying with concerning the racial disparities in enforcing fare-evasion or jumping the turnstile,” said Lancman. “So, I’ve demonstrated, as a public official, my willingness to hold the police department and hold police officers accountable.”
The Black Star News then asked about “Broken Windows” policing.
“The first hearing that I held as the chair of a committee that oversees the criminal justice system was on how “Broken Windows” policing is really damaging our legal system, clogging up our courts, and giving people criminal records in many cases for low-level offences that shouldn’t be in the criminal justice system at all,” said Lancman. “I’ve actually written a couple of op-eds, in the Daily News, explaining how the “Broken Windows” concept wasn’t supposed to be a vehicle for arresting hundreds of thousands of people a year for low-level offences. It was supposed to be just a way to maintain the quality-of-life, and civic order, without using necessarily the criminal justice system. So, in the Council, I was one of the architects of the criminal justice reform act, which took a lot of low-level, ‘Broken Windows’ offences out of the criminal justice system and made them civil offences. So, people would not get criminal records for being in a park after dark or walking around with an open container of alcohol.”
Lancman made a point of stressing the complicity of prosecutors in “Broken Windows” policing.
“It’s important for your readers to understand that the damage of “Broken Windows” policing could not have been done without the active complicity of our prosecutors,” said Lancman. “There is a saying I like to use ‘police can only police, what prosecutors are willing to prosecute.’ So, if prosecutors say we’re not prosecuting these low-level offences, then the police lack the ability, for all practical purposes, to enforce them.”
The Black Star News also asked about Queens being the only borough without a conviction review unit.
“There are hundreds of people sitting in upstate prisons serving real hard time for crimes that they did not commit,” said Lancman. “Wrongful convictions are a crisis in New York. And, in Queens, in particular, there have been over a hundred convictions that have been reversed by courts which have found prosecutorial misconduct in those cases. Queens and Staten Island were the only two boroughs without a wrongful conviction unit, without a place for people to go to have their wrongful conviction reviewed. We [City Council] offered Queens, and Staten Island, the funding to setup a wrongful conviction unit. Queens declined, and Staten Island jumped at the opportunity. So now, Queens is the only borough without a wrongful conviction unit and I tell people when your borough is behind Staten Island, in criminal justice reform, you’ve got a real problem.”
Councilman Lancman says if elected he will institute a conviction review unit in Queens.
“We’re gonna setup a conviction review unit,” said Lancman. “And we’re gonna squeeze the funding out of the City Council, because that’s what I know how to do. And we’re gonna comprehensively review our cases to ensure, not only that an innocent person wasn’t convicted of a crime, but also that people received fair trails. You know if the conviction review unit requires somebody to actually prove their innocence that’s a very high standard. I think it’s enough to release someone from prison if they can demonstrate that they had a fundamentally unfair trial. So, for example, if it comes out that the detective in you case lied about information or that a witness in your case was given a benefit in exchange for their testimony, I think those are things that the ordinary person will say well Mr. Jones didn’t get a fair trial. For me that’s enough to let Mr. Jones out of prison. As opposed to Mr. Jones going out to find the evidence that he didn’t do it.”
We finally asked Councilman Rory Lancman to tell the Black Star News readers why he is the best candidate to be elected the next District Attorney of Queens. “Because both as a public official, and as a candidate,” said Lancman. “I’m the one most willing to directly confront the racism and discrimination against poor people that permeates the criminal justice system and have delivered actual reform to make the criminal justice system fairer that I can finalize when I am the district attorney.”