A Week in Columbia County Court

Columbia-County-Court

Darius Washington stands before Columbia County Judge Richard Koweek after his charges are read.

John Hillman stands to his full height before Columbia County Judge Richard Koweek and tries to explain why his client, who is scheduled for a pre-trial hearing at 1 p.m., is nowhere to be found.

The last time he actually talked to Luis Flores* was three weeks ago, Hillman says as Koweek stares flatly down at him from the altitudinous judge’s bench. He texted and called Flores yesterday, and texted him and his wife today, but had not received a response.

Delays are incredibly common in Columbia County Court. Defendants who are out on bail or have been released pending court dates do not show, or are late; defense attorneys mess up their schedules or are kept long at other courts; people awaiting court dates are jailed for new offenses in other counties and not transferred at the right time; the court calendar is constantly chopped up, reshuffled, and slapped back together.

Court is messy.

Hillman asks for an adjournment — for the case to be set aside until Flores is present. Koweek denies the application. The pre-trial hearing will go on without Flores, and if he doesn’t show up soon, an arrest warrant will be issued.

I sat in on proceedings at Columbia County Court for a week in December 2017 while conducting interviews with the big wigs in the system. This article is the summation of this experience, as well as seeing hundreds of cases at the court in my former position as the crime/courts reporter for the Register-Star.

Flores is not charged with rape and murder like one of the defendants in this article. He is not charged with choking and assaulting his child’s mother like another. Eighty-three percent of those arraigned in criminal court in the county are there for non-violent felonies, according to an analysis of county court data from Jan. 2016-June 2017 compiled by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. The most common charge is aggravated drunken driving, followed by commercial burglary, followed by possessing forged paperwork with the intent to defraud, according to the data.

Flores was indicted on four charges on Sept. 21, 2017: first-degree falsifying business records, false personation, and two drunken driving charges. The court date he is failing to show up for is his pre-trial hearing, where Hillman and the prosecutor, Columbia County Assistant District Attorney James Carlucci, argue what is admissible during the trial.

Flores was arrested last February by Trooper James L. Sokolowski, who now approaches the witness stand to be sworn in. Carlucci, a portly man with glasses and a nasal voice, stands to question the trooper after he is sworn in.

Sokolowski was patrolling on Route 9H in Kinderhook, a small town 25 minutes north of Hudson, just after 10 p.m. when he saw a car with its headlights off pull up to a stop sign near a Hannaford Supermarket, according to his testimony.

He stopped the car in the supermarket’s parking lot and started questioning the driver, who did not have ID on him but said his name was Fernando Zapata, Sokolowski’s testifies.

The trooper says the man was slurring his speech, had “impaired motor coordination,” and “the odor of alcoholic beverage” on him.

Cops choose their words very carefully in court.

The driver admitted to downing two beers and a shot of Patron, and Sokolowski cuffed him and read his Miranda Rights after running him through field sobriety tests (walk the line, touch your nose, etc.), he testifies.

Flores was driven to the state police barracks in Kinderhook, where police took prints and a mug shot, Sokolowski testifies, but then there was a problem: the prints came back as belonging not to Fernando Zapata, but Luis Flores.

Flores denied he was Flores three times before relenting, Sokolowski testifies, but the confession may have been a good thing. Flores has no criminal record, but Googling “Fernando Zapata” leads to a man serving a life sentence in Texas for murdering a pregnant woman.

It’s Hillman’s turn next. Basically, he’s trying to get evidence and testimony Carlucci plans to use during the trial thrown out before it can be used. He attempts to do this in two ways during his cross-examination: by questioning whether, as an inebriated Mexican National, Flores understood his Miranda Rights, which were read in English; and whether anything Flores said after the police allegedly found he was lying about his identity was admissible, since Flores’ Miranda rights were not re-read to him.

Koweek sides with Carlucci: everything Flores said in the parking lot and back at the police barracks can be used during the trial.

But Flores still hasn’t shown. Koweek orders a warrant to be issued, and Hillman says he’ll arrange for his client to turn himself in if he’s able to contact him.

But then there he is: a slight man with a pubescent mustache wearing a shirt with “USA” printed across the chest in big, bold type.

The warrant isn’t issued, but Flores is still facing a felony charge for filling out state police paperwork with a fake name. The trial is set for April 9.

If it happens. Those arraigned in Columbia County Court rarely go to trial. In fact, from Jan. 2016-June 2017, there were only five criminal trials at the court, according to the Division of Criminal Justice Services. Most people take plea bargains and hope for the best.

Ryan-Carty-District-Attorney

Columbia County Assistant District Attorney Ryan Carty in his office.

The Assistant DA

There are only four things on the wall behind Ryan Carty’s desk at the Columbia County Human Services Building in Hudson. They are all photographs of defendants, all from one case.

Carty, one of the Columbia County Assistant District Attorneys, called it “the first real big case that I had ever worked on.”

Goliath Van Alphen, his ex-wife, Jeanine Van Alphen-Moot, and Goliath’s relatives Eugene Shackleton and William Wendover were arrested in December of 2014 and charged with sex crimes against a group of minors.

They faced an expanded 58-count indictment the next summer charging them with the repeated sodomy, molestation and rape of four children over the course of almost two years. All four were under the age of 11 during the crimes, according to the indictment.

Carty worked on the case for more than two years until it went to trial the summer of 2017. All four children, then between the ages of nine and 14, testified in open court about the years of abuse rained down upon them.

“That case in particular is one I’ll never forget, and those kids, to do what they did, were very brave, and I can’t say enough about how well they did,” Carty said.

All four defendants are now serving effective life sentences.

“It’s just some odd form of motivation and some kind of thoughts as to — reminders of why you do the job,” he said of the photos.

Carty, who is 28 and nearly 6’4 with dark hair, started interning at the District Attorney’s Office the summer after his freshman year in law school, and was hired full-time by District Attorney Paul Czajka as an assistant DA when he graduated, he said.

A case in the DA’s office can sometimes begin before there is a defendant, at the crime scene itself, Carty said.

There are three main police agencies in Columbia County: the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, the New York State Police, and the Hudson Police Department. The agencies often call the DA’s office with questions about how an investigation should proceed, or, in the case of a major crime, will inform the DA so someone from the office can come down to the crime scene, Carty said.

Carty was called to Cory Velazquez’s Hudson apartment in October of 2015 after the man died from a stab wound to the neck. Velazquez was stabbed at about 11 p.m., according to Hudson police, and they detained the man’s cousin, Carl Williams, early the next morning, arresting him after they questioned him at the police department. Carty was at the arraignment that afternoon, tired-looking, unshaven, and wearing the street clothes he threw on when he got the call.

“In more serious cases, when you can actually go to the crime scene, you can actually see it and observe it for yourself,” Carty said. “You don’t lose anything in translation from the police officer, who then has to tell me about it —  because if I see it myself, I understand, and it creates a better memory.”

Carty was also present at the aftermath of some of the shootings to rack Hudson over the summer, in which one person died and six people were injured, including two young children.

When a person is arrested in Columbia County, what happens next is dependent on how severe the charges are.

There are three basic classes of charges in New York state: violations, misdemeanors and felonies. Violations include being found with less than 25 grams of pot, or striking someone without hurting them. You can technically be incarcerated for up to 15 days for a violation, according to state law, but the vast majority of violations end in a small fine.

Misdemeanors include things like groping, threatening someone with a gun, or strangling someone without causing them to pass out. You can serve up to a year in jail for a misdemeanor.

Felonies range from Class E felonies, such as badly injuring someone in a drunken driving accident, to Class A-1 felonies, which include premeditated murder and terrorism. Class E felonies carry up to four years in prison. Class A-I felonies carry up to life.

After an arrest, a defendant makes an initial appearance at a local court. You can’t plead guilty or not guilty to a felony here, so the appearance is about getting the charges on the record, setting bail, and applying for a public defender.

After the initial court appearance, felonies must be dealt with in Columbia County Court. The case is transferred, and, in the vast majority of situations, the plea bargaining process starts.

In essence, the defendant’s attorney is trying to get the DA’s office to lower the severity of the charges in exchange for a guilty plea.

The process is sometimes a negotiation between the defense attorney and the DA, and sometimes is a take-it-or-leave-it offer from Czajka, Carty said. In other cases, a lesser charge is not on the table, and the only offer is for the DA to “remain silent during sentencing” — to not make a recommendation when the judge is considering jail time.

If a plea deal is hashed out before the case makes an appearance in county court, the DA’s office prepares a Superior Court Information (SCI), wherein the defendant is charged with lesser crimes, and the defendant pleads guilty to these charges.

A defendant can also plead not guilty to an SCI if they find the offer insufficient. However, they can (and, in Columbia County Court, often do) change their minds and plead guilty to the SCI later.

However, sometimes the defendant rejects any forays into plea bargaining territory, or the DA doesn’t want to offer a plea bargain, and the case is brought to a grand jury.

Grand juries (which are closed to the public and reporters) hear the initial evidence from the DA. Their job is not to find whether a defendant is guilty, but only to decide if the evidence “provides reasonable cause to believe that such person committed such offense,” according to state penal law.

If the evidence is sufficient, the Grand Jury indicts the defendant. The defendant can choose to plead guilty to the indictment — just as they can with the SCI — or to go to trial. It’s the policy of the DA’s office under Paul Czajka to not offer plea deals to defendants who have already been indicted, so when a defendant pleads guilty to an indictment, it won’t be to lesser charges.

About two-thirds more felony charges in the county enter Columbia County Court through SCIs than by going through grand jury/indictment process, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

And occasionally, a case goes to trial. It often takes a while.

From Jan 2016-June 2017, the average case took 351 days to go to trial in Columbia County, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Statistics, and this is only after the case officially enters county court through an indictment or SCI. Major cases, such as murder, can take more than two years to be disposed.

“The common saying is that the wheels of justice turn ever slowly,” Carty said, “and basically the reason why is because a defendant is afforded numerous rights under both the U.S. Constitution and the New York State Constitution.”

The defense attorney can challenge every piece of evidence the DA plans to bring to trial in an attempt to have it thrown out, Carty said.

“If you were dealing with, say, a drug case (where drugs were) found in a vehicle, there’d be issues of whether or not the police had probable cause to stop the vehicle — that issue has to be litigated,” Carty said. “From there, if they were able to search the vehicle — that issue has to be litigated. If the defendants made any statements, that also is another issue that has to be litigated.”

Hillman was doing this when he challenged the admission of Flores’ statements in the drunken driving case.

The DA must also turn over all evidence to the defense that might be beneficial to the defendant, and the defense attorney needs time to go over this evidence. In the Van Alphen child sex-ring case, this evidence ran into thousands of pages, and the trial was delayed so the defense lawyers could sift through it.

Arguments between the DA’s office and defense attorneys can become heated in court, and I asked Carty if the emotions ever continue outside the courtroom.

“In order to be a successful attorney, especially a trial attorney, you need to be invested in your case,” Carty said. “You need to be 100 percent behind what you’re arguing, because if you don’t believe in what you’re arguing, how are you going to convince 12 [jurors]?”

“At times, things do get heated, and there’s altercations in court,” Carty said, but he learned to let the adversarial relationship go “as soon as you step outside the courtroom.”

“The (defense) attorney, he was just doing his job, just like you were doing your job,” he said.

Carty never likes losing, he said, but he trusts the system.

“Regardless of my feelings — if I was not pleased with the outcome —  if that is the verdict of the jury, that is the correct and only verdict,” he said.

Columbia-County-Court

The Columbia County Courthouse in Hudson, NY.

The Alleged Abuser

Todd Vorhees has elected to curry the favor of Columbia County Judge Jonathan Nichols by donning a black hoodie to court. The hood isn’t up, as per court rules, and his half-mast, stygian eyes don’t stray to the mother of his child until the very end.

James Carlucci is prosecuting the case, and has just learned something concerning, though not altogether surprising: Vorhees was arrested last night for violating a court order demanding he not have contact with Samantha Jones, his child’s mother now seated at the table to his right.

Carlucci tells Nichols this, his voice edged with frustration, and asks the judge to extend the court order, as it is about to expire. Nichols does not have a problem with this.

Vorhees has racked up at least 13 charges in the last three-and-a-half months, 12 of them allegedly directed at the girl to his right. They are read out in court: On Sept. 20, for allegedly harassing Jones and for disorderly conduct. On Oct. 12, four charges, including for allegedly assaulting and restraining Jones. On Nov. 20, five charges, including for allegedly physically threatening and choking her.

Vorhees allegedly had contact with Jones the night before “and who knows how many between now and May” — the final court date, Carlucci says, the frustration creeping back.

“I hope not,” Nichols replies. “…but that’s a strained hope.”

This is IDV court, where related family and criminal court cases are smushed together.

Bail for Vorhees’ last charge — violating the court order — was set at $250 by the village of Philmont Court, which Vorhees says he already paid. Carlucci tries to get the bail revoked, meaning Vorhees would be sent to Columbia County Jail until the charge was resolved. There is “no reason to believe he will show up in court” due to his penchant for disobeying court orders, Carlucci argues.

Vorhees’ lawyer responds, arguing his client has never skipped a court date. Nichols decides to keep the bail as it is.

A group of six or seven, including Jones’ father, is seated on one of the wooden pews situated behind the action of the court. They stride over to Jones after the proceeding concludes, surrounding her in a protective cloud, and hurry her away from Vorhees.

Columbia-County-Court

Dominick Cornelius

The Public Defender

The Columbia County Public Defender’s Office handles 1,300 cases at any given time, according to lead Public Defender Dominick J. Cornelius.

These include not only felony criminal cases, but misdemeanor and violation proceedings in local courts, as well as family court cases.

Cornelius took the helm of the Public Defender’s Office in January from Robert Linville, who led the office for two decades. He has a lengthy record of legal public service in both Columbia and neighboring Greene counties.

The decision about whether someone is eligible for public defense is made by the judge, Cornelius said. They not only take the defendant’s income into consideration, but their expenses and how much a private attorney would cost for their particular case — someone accused with murder might get a public defender because of the many thousands of dollars a private attorney would cost for the lengthy case, but someone with the same income accused of drunken driving may not, because of the relatively low cost of representation.

After someone is arrested in the county, they must make their initial court appearance quickly, both because of state law and a lack of police resources to keep defendants in custody at police stations.

However, many local courts are only open an evening or two a week, but state penal code allows defendants accused of more serious crimes to make their initial court appearances at any open court in the county.

During local court hours, there are always public defenders present, and defendants can apply on the spot.

But if someone is arrested in the middle of the night, police often have to rouse a sleepy judge for the defendant to make their appearance. State Police did this to Livingston Town Judge Robert Moore for years, simply because his court was the closest to the Livingston Police Barracks, and Moore was willing to answer the phone.

In these cases, public defenders are not available. Cornelius said he doesn’t currently have the resources to have a public defender at night, but the state was trying to hash out a plan so the indigent could have representation at these appearances 24/7.

Since defendants can’t plead guilty or not guilty to a felony in local court, the main decision made is about bail — a defendant can be “released on their own recognizance” without having to post any bail, bail can be set, or the defendant can be held without the possibility of getting out on bail.

Cornelius said the local judges have a history of protecting the rights of the accused when setting bail, and he can file an “Order to Show Cause” to argue down the bail if he believes it is unreasonable.

In his new position, Cornelius said he wanted to institute more contact with defendants and their public defenders.

“A big part of it is —  in an unfortunately short amount of time —  trying to develop the relationship of mutual trust so that the client would be more willing to accept the advice you give,” he said.

Trust between the client and the public defender pays off in the long-term, Cornelius said, because “defendants will accept plea bargains that are advantageous, where otherwise they may not.”

Cornelius has served on both sides of the courtroom. He began his legal career working for the Greene County District Attorney, and has also worked for the Columbia County District Attorney and as lead Public Defender for Greene County, he said.

It is not unheard of, or even unusual, for an attorney to both defend and prosecute over their career. Paul Czajka, the current Columbia County DA, was a public defender in the late 1980s (though, in a separate interview, he said he thought “as DA, I can do more for the county and the people of the county” than as a public defender).

There was a lot in common between working for the DA’s office and as a public defender, but distinct differences, Cornelius said.

“In a sense, it’s kind of like walking down the same street,” he said. “It’s just that you’re on a different side.”

A DA is accountable to the people of the county, whereas a public defender is accountable only to their client, a significant difference, Cornelius said.

When I pressed him about the different outlooks between protecting and prosecuting the accused, Cornelius talked about the innocent.

“It’s rare, but there are people who are innocent who get arrested,” he said. “There are people who are not guilty of what they’ve been charged with — they may be guilty of something else, but they’re not guilty of what they’re charged with. So sometimes, you represent people…where you’re doing something for society in the sense that you are representing somebody who may have been overcharged, or who may be factually innocent.”

The morals of his position were on a more philosophical level, however.

“During the Cold War, when I grew up, in China you would hear…that a truck would pull up to a person’s house at three in the morning and the person would be dragged into the back of a truck, and they would drive away, and the town wouldn’t hear about this person and never know what happened,” he said. “When a person gets a good defense and is convicted, society can believe in the fact that that person was in fact guilty.”

“It helps to legitimatize the system, it helps to give the whole system credibility,” he continued. “Because in a system where there is no due process, where people don’t get a defense, where the truck comes in the middle of the night and just takes them away, there’s always a lingering question: whether or not they truly did something wrong.”

 

The Alleged Addict

There are about 350 adults on probation in Columbia County at any given time, according to Vincent Doto, the director of the county’s probation department. Sheryl Danzig is one of them.

A defendant can be sentenced to probation, or sentenced to a combination of jail and probation, after a plea bargain or trial. A popular plea bargain offered to defendants charged with moderate crimes involves six months of jail and five years of probation. It’s applied often enough lawyers and judges at the court call it a “6/5 split” for shorthand.

Danzig is in court today because she violated the terms of her probation. She’s escorted into Judge Nichols’ courtroom by a formidable-looking female sheriff’s deputy from the Columbia County Jail. Jails, not to be confused with prisons, hold people incarcerated for less than a year, or those hacking their way through the court process who can’t come up with the cash for bail, or who weren’t offered the option of bail in the first place.

Incarcerated defendants can wear their own clothing when they appear for trial, but if they make a court appearance for any other reason, they arrive in jail duds. Danzig is dressed like this, a zebra-striped jumpsuit with an emergency-red “CCJ” on the back hanging down her chunky body, the type of old-timey jail uniform that makes everyone look like they were arrested for robbing stagecoaches. She waits inside the courtroom entrance for her turn in front of Nichols, her feet chained, her handcuffs manacled to a thick leather belt around her waist, the blonde highlights in her hair pulled into yellow strings by a ponytail.

Danzig was sentenced to probation and ordered to go to drug treatment after being convicted of petty larceny in Greenport in the spring of 2016, Nichols said. He asks her to affirm this.

“Yes, sir.” She leans her head down to scratch an eyebrow.

Danzig allegedly violated her probation more than 15 times. On Aug. 27, 2016, for allegedly possessing and using un-prescribed painkillers; on Oct. 16, 2016, for allegedly possessing and using cocaine; on Oct. 29, in Bethlehem, New York, when she was charged with petty larceny; on Nov. 1, 2016, for allegedly possessing and using cocaine; on Nov. 13, for allegedly possessing and using cocaine; March 17, 2017-cocaine; March 31-cocaine.

She was next arrested in Cobbleskill, New York on July 1 and charged with grand larceny, commercial burglary and misdemeanor conspiracy with three others for allegedly stealing more than $1,200 worth of items from a Wal-Mart. Nichols asks her to affirm.

She leans over and speaks softly to her public defender, Michael Howard, then straightens up.

“Yes.”

Bob Linville, the former Columbia County lead public defender, used to be fond of saying the county was “awash in heroin.” Danzig may have a different drug of choice, but Vincent Doto, who has worked at the county Probation Department for 15 years, said drugs were the main source of crime in the county.

“Drugs in general are a very major contributing factor to the problems the people [have] in our community, no matter what the crime is,” he said. “Whether it’s some kind of larceny where someone’s stealing to get money for drugs, or they’ve done something under the influence of drugs that got them into trouble, or they’re buying or selling drugs.

“It’s one of the things that struck me not long after I got involved in the probation department…just about how much of all this relates to substances,” he continued.

Judges set the conditions of probation, which vary from person to person, but Doto said there were generalized rules applied to most people under his watch, including limits on travel, drug testing, and being banned from drinking booze or going to bars. Malefactors must meet with their probation officers on a regular basis and report any changes of address, employment, and new arrests.

Straying from probation’s rules can have a variety of consequences, Doto said.

“We don’t automatically file a violation of probation if someone has a slip-up,” he said. “It depends on their conditions (and) what they did…there’s a series of what could be referred to as ‘graduated sanctions,’ so every now and then [those] could build up to an eventual violation of probation.”

Being convicted of a new crime automatically warrants a violation of probation, Doto said, and the violator is thrown back into the court system, where it’s possible to face a harsher sentence for the original crime, as well as the new charge.

Part of Danzig’s probation was a drug treatment program at Twin County Recovery Services, but she failed to complete it, resulting in another mark against her.

The issue of bail comes up, but Danzig won’t have the opportunity; she’s sent back to the Columbia County Jail without the possibility of getting out before her sentencing. She shuffles back to the formidable-looking deputy to await the court date, set three months in the future.

Columbia-County-Court

Columbia County Judge Richard Koweek in his courtroom.

The Judge

Richard Koweek still wore judge’s robes as he sat in his blue-walled chambers between the morning and afternoon court appearances. Koweek (pronounced either KO-wik or KO-WEEK depending on which side of the family you ask, he said) dons a short, blanching beard, spectacles and an inscrutable affect.

Koweek was elected a county court judge in 2012 after presiding over Hudson City Court for three years, he said.

There are three types of typical mornings in his position, Koweek said: trial days, when his attention is committed to the case at hand; days where he “sits in court,” hearing various proceedings; and “hybrid days,” where he spends part of his time on the bench and part of it in his chambers, reviewing material, researching and writing.

Koweek is a “multi-bench judge,” he said, a position found in less-populated counties which entails presiding over criminal, civil, family and estate court proceedings, responsibilities divided up between different judges in larger counties.

In criminal court, he presides over dozens of cases working their way through the system at a time, referencing the state’s penal code when making decisions, a copy of which he keeps on his bench. But the most important decision he makes isn’t about keeping the proceedings fastened to legal strictures written by others, and instead lands on his shoulders.

Judges decide the punishment. There are ranges set by the penal code, but they are wide. Someone without a prior record who is convicted of commercial burglary, for instance, can be sentenced anywhere from a short stint on probation to seven years in state prison.

In cases where a defendant takes a plea deal, Koweek sometimes promises a particular sentence as part of the deal, he said.

In instances where the defendant pleads guilty after being indicted, or is found guilty after a trial, the DA can recommend a sentence, but Koweek is free to disregard the suggestion.

There are materials for Koweek to reference, such as a pre-sentencing report compiled by the Probation Department that includes information about the defendant and their actions since arrest, as well as “victim impact statements” and letters of support from the defendant’s kin and kith.

However, when asked what he takes into consideration when deciding a sentence, Koweek responds, “everything.”

“I take the defendant’s record into consideration…(and) if there’s an admission and any remorse tied together. I take the impact on the victim, and any other factor that might be relevant,” Koweek said. “There’s no cookie cutter for me.”

When discussing potential sentences, newspapers often list the maximum for the crime, but Koweek and Jonathan Nichols, the other Columbia County criminal judge, rarely give out the maximum, which is more of an extreme upwards limit on how much time someone can serve.

A defendant can make a statement before being sentenced, where they often apologize for their crimes, and I asked Koweek how he can tell if this, and other forms of remorse, are genuine.

He sighed.

“You don’t know,” he said. “You do your best to guess, and how do you do your best to guess? — I’m 64 years old. I’ve judged people in what they’ve said to me for 62 of those 64 years.”

He paraphrased an instruction he gives to juries about witnesses in court.

“Everything in life goes into making a credibility judgement of the witnesses that a jury hears — I do the same thing when the defendants make their statements,” he said.

David-Agan

David Agan in court after jury selection & haircut. Photo Courtesy Lance Wheeler

Agan

David Agan, 41, sits like a column in the center of the ornate overflow courtroom, watching prosecutors and his defense attorney hash out what 12 citizens will decide his fate.

Agan is tall and fatless with broad shoulders, wide cheekbones and a narrow chin. He has let his hair grow out since he was sent to Columbia County Jail with no bail in early December 2015, and the black eye stemming from the arrest has long ago faded.

He is still wearing a wedding band.

Agan stabbed his wife to death after she found out he was having sex with a minor she knew. He’s facing 140 charges, including first-degree murder and 17 counts of statutory rape, because prosecutors allege the victim was under 17 when Agan first took advantage of her.

State police said Agan stabbed Christina Agan more than 30 times with a screwdriver while she was in a medical facility in Valatie where she was a patient, then fled until troopers caught up with him on Route 4 in East Greenbush, according to the Register-Star.

The first part of jury selection is popularly called the “excuses and medical issues” portion, where potential jurors are summoned into court, 100 at a time, and are given forms where they desperately argue why they can’t serve as jurors.

It’s hard to find anyone in the county who has not heard of the Agan case. News travels fast in the county of 62,000, aided by the Register-Star and Albany-based news stations that covered the event. The case is one of only four alleged murders in the county in the past three years, and a large chunk of the county knew about it immediately, since Christina was killed in public and the local school district put 1,900 students on lockdown after Agan fled.

But the court is tasked with finding 14 jurors (12 plus two alternates) who have not formed an opinion of the case.

David-Agan

Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka (left) and Agan’s attorney, Dennis Schlenker in court during Agan’s trial. Photo Courtesy Lance Wheeler

A bearded man in his 30s stands before Koweek, the judge framed by buffed metal letters on the wall behind him spelling out “In God We Trust.”

The man knows little about the case, he says, but heard about it on the radio at the time of Agan’s arrest.

The man has circled “yes” under the part of the form asking potential jurors if they have formed an opinion of the case, and is asked about this.

“If you hear something on the radio, you assume it’s true,” he says. He later clarifies he takes the news with a grain of salt, but assumes the basis of what is reported is correct.

I covered the Agan case for the Register-Star, and I can assure you I never said Agan did anything. I can further assure you the radio show the juror heard never said Agan did anything either. What I did, and what I assume the radio program did, was reference police and prosecutors saying Agan had killed his wife.

News outlets are very careful not to say the accused has committed any part of a crime, because, if a court finds them innocent, the exonerated can sue the outlet.

The word “alleged” is thrown around a lot in crime reporting.

If a court finds a defendant guilty, then news outlets can take away the “alleged,” and don’t have to attribute the basics of the crime to anyone, because, if it’s good enough for a court of law, it’s good enough for the papers.

The jury would find Agan guilty on all 140 counts, according to the Register Star.

Another juror is sworn in. He has also circled the portion in the questionnaire indicating he has formed an opinion on the case, and tells Koweek he thought Agan was probably guilty “in light of so much evidence.”

He read about the case in the newspaper and discussed it with his wife at its outset, who works at a medical facility affiliated with the site of the murder. He knew what the case was from reading the questionnaire, though it does not name Agan or include details about the case.

The juror is going to have to compartmentalize what he has heard, and not take this information into consideration if selected for the jury, Koweek says, an oft-repeated request at this stage of jury selection.

There are far more sheriff’s deputies in the courtroom than during most cases. One is behind the judge, one is near the courtroom door, and three form a wall of flesh behind Agan. There’s a break before a panel of jurors is called in, and Agan asks one of the deputies if he can stand up and stretch. After getting the OK, he stands, then makes as though he is going to dive out the courtroom window to freedom, a rapscallion’s grin on his face. The deputy is not amused.

The jury panel has been called in, and several jurors are dismissed. It’s now the defense and prosecutor’s time to “voir dire” the panel, questioning them about their views and backgrounds to see if they will serve as beneficial jurors. For instance, in a domestic assault case, the prosecution would want female jurors, because they would be more likely to view the offender in a negative light, while the defense would be trying like to hell to keep as many women off the jury as possible.

Czajka stops in front of a woman in her 30s crossing her arms irately over her belly.

“You don’t look happy,” he says.

“I’m stressed about not being able to take care of my daily life things,” she responds, crossing her arms all the tighter.

Czajka asks jurors if they are married, if they have children, about their jobs and hobbies, addressing them only by their juror number.

One of the panel member is a police officer. Czajka asks him if he would give any additional credibility to law enforcement officers who will testify against Agan in court.

The man has been involved in law enforcement for 30 years, he says, and “it would be difficult not to take some of their testimony at face value.”

It’s next the defense’s turn to voir dire the panel. Agan has two attorneys: Dennis Schlenker, who is representing him on the murder charge, and Assistant Public Defender Ian Crimmins, who is representing him on the sex crime charges. Schlenker rises, beginning his voir dere solemnly.

“Mr. Czajka is correct,” he says. “This is a very, very difficult case.”

The defendant is not accused of shoplifting, and instead the “charges involve the most serious we have laws for,” Schlenker says. There will be autopsy photos, graphic testimony, and graphic evidence.

The defense was prepared to argue Agan was experiencing an “extreme emotional disturbance” prior to the event, he says.

An older woman on the panel begins to speak up, but then lowers her face into her hand and begins crying. She tries again, but then says she wants to speak to the judge in private after the voir dire.

Schlenker brings his voir dire to a close.

“At times, we’re aggressive, we ask a lot of questions, we get emotional, we get angry — don’t hold it against my client,” he says.

The older woman and two others go to speak to Koweek in private, shuffling out of the jury box, three of three hundred potential jurors the court must shift through to come up with a jury, to come up with the truth.

~

Though my observations are informed by two years of reporting on crime and courts for the Register-Star, my experiences that week in Columbia County Court are replicable. Court is the U.S. is open to anyone who wishes to observe.

A friend of mine expressed surprise at this. Shouldn’t the intimate descriptions of crimes, the victim’s testimony, the identity of the accused, be veiled? But where would we be without the ability to see criminal proceedings? We would be, as Cornelius said, left to wonder if the man dragged away in the middle of the night is truly guilty, if justice is truly being served.

*Since many of the defendants in this article have been charged with minor or moderate crimes, their names have been changed to protect their identities. The one exception is David Agan, who was on trial for murder and other crimes. All alleged victims are also referred to by pseudonyms. All non-defendants are referred to by their real names.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s