The Stamford prosecutor in the cab assault/hate crime case appears to have withheld evidence from the defense as he sought a plea deal with the defendant, opening new questions about how justice was served and what actions the defendant could take after the case was dismissed last year.
Stamford prosecutor Steven Weiss appears to have withheld evidence from the defense for nearly four months, during which time he attempted to make plea arrangements with William Bryan Jennings, the defendant, who in the meantime was fired from his job with Morgan Stanley because of the negative publicity generated by his arrest.
Norm Pattis, a prominent civil rights attorney based in New Haven, said if Weiss withheld evidence, it’s a serious affront to justice.
“To seek a plea bargain while withholding evidence is unconscionable,” Pattis said.
On Dec. 21, 2011, just two days after Jennings’ 45th birthday, he hailed a cab in Manhattan and was picked up by Mohamed Ammar of Queens, who then drove Jennings to his Knollwood Lane home. Upon arrival, the two men began arguing over the fare. Ammar, who claimed he was unable to get cell phone reception, started to drive away with Jennings still inside, as he searched for police to settle the dispute. Jennings, fearing he was being abducted, according to his testimony, drew a knife. Ammar reported that Jennings cut his hand, but Jennings said Ammar grabbed the knife from him. Ammar stopped, and Jennings ran home.
Ammar eventually contacted police, and he gave them a statement but he couldn’t recall where Jennings lived, so police had little to go on. He later got six stitches to treat the cut on his right hand.
Police thoroughly searched the car for the knife, but could not find it, and admitted to having never searched Ammar for it, as he was “the alleged victim of the assault,” said Darien Police Capt. Fred Komm at the time the case was dismissed. Four months after the incident, Ammar came forward, telling police he found the knife in the closed position while cleaning his cab. However, according to Jennings, information about Ammar turning over the knife was not shared with Jennings or his lawyer for more than four months.
Jennings broke his longtime media silence when he recently told The Darien Times that his attorney, Gene Riccio, was not informed by Weiss of the knife’s existence until the last week of September, only a few weeks before his trial. Riccio declined to comment.
The Darien Times obtained information from a source close to the case that pointed to the accuracy of Jennings’ claim. A police report, which appeared to have never been filed with other court documents, indicates that police were informed that Ammar had the knife, and on May 14 went to Queens to get it. The report wasn’t filed until 11 days later, and never appeared in Jennings’ case file.
Multiple reviews of Jennings’ case file — after the report was completed by police — confirmed that the knife’s existence was never in the file. It is likely to now be destroyed, as courts only keep records for 20 days after a case is dismissed.
Police have neither confirmed nor denied the existence of this report. The report was signed by Det. Chester Perkowsi, and includes work performed by Det. Mark Cappelli and Lt. Ron Bussell. The knife tested positive for blood, according to the report.
Weiss did not respond to at least five requests for comment. David Cohen, the state’s attorney for the Stamford district and Weiss’s supervisor, would not comment directly about Jennings’ case because in the eyes of the state, his case never happened.
However, if exculpatory evidence was withheld to make a plea arrangement in any criminal case, that is something Cohen said he “would need to take a look at.”
“If there’s a prosecutor who is so intent on getting a conviction that he’s going to suppress evidence like that, or, you know, in order to win at all cost, then yeah,” that could warrant consequences against that prosecutor, Cohen said, adding that he doesn’t know of any prosecutors in his office who would act that way.
Cohen said it would likely not be a situation where the prosecutor would be fired, but more likely would be “educated,” unless it was a recurring problem.
While Jennings waited for his trial, he told The Darien Times that Weiss was offering him plea deals, which he did not accept. Jennings was fired from his job about two weeks before the trial, and Morgan Stanley is reportedly withholding $5 million in deferred compensation from Jennings as a result of the bad press.
Riccio, Jennings’ attorney, filed two motions to dismiss the case, one of which was submitted after the knife report was completed by police. Riccio had also filed a Franks motion, citing sloppy police work. Many of Ammar’s statements were discredited in Riccio’s research, such as Ammar’s claim that the $204 fare was mandated by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which the police accepted as true without validating. The Darien Times confirmed Riccio’s findings, which stated that the commission does not mandate fares from Manhattan to Darien.
It also became clear that Ammar never entered the fare into his meter, according to Riccio’s findings, which is a violation of New York law. Police did not include this information in their arrest warrant. Sources close to the situation told The Times that Ammar is no longer driving a taxi.
Legal experts claim Jennings could be in a strong position to sue Darien Police for violation of his civil rights. Pattis, the civil rights attorney, said if the evidence was withheld from the defense, the court and prosecutors are immune from liability.
“If police knowingly withheld exculpatory information, he may have action against them,” Pattis told The Times.
Courts “shouldn’t be immune, but they are,” Pattis added. “I don’t know why we have this — if the government abuses you, you can’t sue them. It certainly raises questions about the integrity of the administration of justice.”
Cohen, the state prosecutor, said immunity is important to prevent prosecutors from having to “always look over their shoulders.”
“If we didn’t have [immunity], we would not be able to do what we thought was right without that fear, ‘Did I make a bad call?’” Cohen said. “You can’t operate like that. The system would fall apart.”
Cohen added that the immunity is qualified, and if a prosecutor makes an egregious error, he or she would not be immune from suit.
The rules for sharing evidence are not black and white, but it does require prompt notification, according to the Connecticut Practice Book, which governs rules for legal proceedings in the Nutmeg State.
“If prior to or during trial a party discovers additional material previously ordered to be disclosed or which the party is otherwise obligated to disclose, such party shall promptly notify the other party and the judicial authority of its existence,” the practice book states.
Jeffrey Meyer, a visiting law professor at Yale and former federal court prosecutor, said if Weiss or his office withheld evidence, they should at the very least be subject to questioning as to why that happened.
“It would seem clear that a prosecutor is a servant of the public interest, and should promptly disclose exculpatory information to the defense,” Meyer said, “and the prosecutor should be fairly subject to questioning if the prosecutor doesn’t have a good reason why material exculpatory information wasn’t turned over to the defense.”
Sandra Staub, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said cases where defendants are no offered equal access to evidence could be a constitutional violation.
“We are very concerned with reports that criminal defendants in Connecticut courts are not receiving timely discovery, whether the evidence implicates them or exonerates them,” Staub stated in an email to The Times. “To the extent people have specific experiences with state prosecutors who have failed to provide discovery in a timely way in the criminal process, the ACLU of Connecticut would like to hear from those defendants so we can evaluate these situations for constitutional violations.”
Jennings always maintained he was the victim of abduction, and Weiss admitted that he should have charged Ammar with unlawful restraint. No charges were ever filed against Ammar. Jennings said he told Weiss that he agreed to escrow money to pay for the cab fare, but Ammar’s lawyer, Hassan Ahmad, said he never received any offer of payment. It’s unclear whether Jennings’ offer was ever relayed to Ahmad and Ammar.
Jennings provided The Times a receipt indicating the amount set aside for payment of the fare, which he had paid his lawyer to manage. Ahmad has been retained to pursue civil damages against Jennings.
The story of the knife still leaves many unanswered questions. Neither Ahmad nor Jennings understood why it took so long for information about the knife to surface. Ahmad earlier told The Times that if the knife were the real reason for dropping the case, it should have been dropped months before October. Both Ammar and Jennings appear to have been denied justice by the decision to withhold the evidence.
“He didn’t tell anybody he had the knife,” Weiss said the day of Jennings’ trial. “We didn’t learn until May he had held evidence for five months.” It appears Weiss, however, then held that same evidence for another four months.
The Brady Rule requires material exculpatory evidence to be disclosed, but that only applies to a case that has gone to trial, Meyer said, adding that prosecutors are generally immune from being sued as a result of slow disclosure, as per the decision in Imbler v. Pachtman.
“Rules of ethics and decency require equal bargaining power,” Meyer told The Darien Times. “The prosecutor must be scrupulous, ensuring that the processing of information is fair. If the prosecutor doesn’t share material and exculpatory evidence — and sits on it month after month, with knowledge that discovery of evidence would require timely disclosure — it’s not clear how a prosecutor can sleep at night.”
Additional reporting by Susan Shultz and Yevgeniya Davydov.