Defense attorney: 'chaos in the courtroom'
READING (7/6/16) --In what Defense Attorney Sujata Gibson described as "chaos in the courtroom," the trial of a Seneca Lake gas storage protestor took an unusual turn Tuesday, June 28, in the town of Reading court. The hearing of Tom Angie, 63, of Aurora, was declared a mistrial after Reading Town Judge Raymond Berry prematurely declared Angie guilty before he was allowed to present his defense. Gibson added Berry also accepted her motion to recuse himself from Angie's case, along with all future cases of gas storage protesters. However, as of press time Monday, July 4, it is still unknown how concrete Berry's recusal is going forward.
"The whole thing unraveled into a very unusual, almost embarrassing situation," Chief Defense Attorney Joseph Heath said. He added in his 41 years practicing law, "This has been one of the most bizarre sequences and rulings that I've encountered."
Angie was charged with violation-level trespass stemming from a Dec. 16, 2014 protest near the main gates of the Crestwood Midstream compressor station near Seneca Lake along Route 14. There have been 606 arrests in the past 21 months as a result of the We Are Seneca Lake protest campaign against the proposed expansion of methane and liquified petroleum gas (LPG) in unused Seneca Lake salt caverns. Gibson said there are still around 350 cases currently left to deal with, but added there will be more arraignments in the future.
According to a We Are Seneca Lake press release, Angie's trial began at 10 a.m. Tuesday. By 2 p.m., prosecutor Schuyler County Assistant District Attorney John Tunney had put on the stand three witnesses and rested his case. Heath said he cross-examined the witnesses during this time and made a motion to dismiss after the prosecution rested. Heath noted Berry retired to his chambers for a short amount of time, before returning to court and declaring Angie guilty.
"It was so out of line, it was the prosecutor who had to correct him," Heath said.
After Tunney attempted to explain the procedure to Berry, Heath moved that the case be transferred to a law-trained judge, adding the judge's premature ruling of guilt showed a lack of knowledge of criminal law. Heath also questioned the ability of his clients to obtain a fair trial in Reading, later noting the court is not equipped to handle so many cases. Heath said Berry is not a law-trained judge, adding his knowledge of the law is not what the defense had hoped for. He stated judges need to understand the rules of evidence and procedure, adding the informality of the court is one of the problems.
Gibson said she was not surprised Berry said he was guilty before the defense was presented, but was shocked when after the proper procedure was explained to him, Berry said he still found Angie guilty. She said if the judge insisted on ruling this way, they would be forced to appeal.
"This case would be slaughtered on appeal," Gibson added.
Gibson said she then entered a motion that Berry recuse himself from hearing Angie's case and asked the recusal be extended to all future cases of gas storage protesters. She said Berry granted her motion and agreed to recuse himself in this and all future trials involving Seneca Lake gas storage protesters. Gibson added the prosecution then moved for a mistrial, which was also granted before adjournment.
"It feels a little bit like a circus," Gibson said.
Both Heath and Gibson claimed they were contacted the following day and were told Berry was considering revoking his recusal. Gibson said she does not believe Berry has any legal grounds to revoke his recusal, adding the defense would not accept a revocation.
Schuyler County District Attorney Joe Fazzary, who did not attend the trial Tuesday, said just because Berry said he would recuse himself, it does not mean he has to follow through. Fazzary said Berry would have to send a letter to the Schuyler County court asking Judge Dennis Morris to accept his recusal from the case. As of Friday, July 1, County Supreme Courts Chief Clerk Samantha Pike said she has not seen anything recently regarding a recusal from Berry, but would need to confirm that information with the Judge's Secretary Barbara Weiss, who is out of the office until Thursday, July 7.
Fazzary said there may have been some confusion as to what was asked of Berry.
"I think he didn't understand what he was asked to determine," Fazzary said.
Fazzary noted they have just recently started trying cases for arrests that took place in the fall and early winter of 2014. He added there was a protestor trial held one week prior in the town of Dix court where two demonstrators were found guilty and sentenced to a $75 fine and $125 surcharge. He said this was the first trial since around March a year ago, noting this mistrial just delays things even further.
The district attorney noted if Berry does officially recuse himself, it would depend on how he worded it to decide how these cases would be handled going forward. Fazzary said if a conflict was stated, Morris would then assign the replacement. If he states he is overwhelmed and cannot handle the caseload, it would then be up to the Office of Court Administration.
"There has been no other case like this in the county that I've ever dealt with," Fazzary said.
When contacted for a comment, Berry said he "can't discuss the case." Reading Town Supervisor Gary Conklin also had no comment on the issue. Tunney also did not respond to a message and email for comment.