By Robert E. Kessler
Updated September 12, 2019 7:30 AM
Former Police Chief James Burke never admitted to then-Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota or Spota’s top aide that he had beaten a prisoner, the lawyers for the former officials contend in arguing that their clients committed no crime in helping him.
Burke, once the highest-ranking uniformed Suffolk police officer and a close ally of Spota, served most of a 46-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty in February 2016 to obstruction of justice and violating Christopher Loeb’s civil rights by assaulting him at a local precinct after his arrest for stealing a duffel bag from Burke’s SUV.
Spota, 78, of Mount Sinai, initially elected as a corruption fighter and Christopher McPartland, 53, of Northport, who ran the district attorney’s anti-corruption unit, are themselves facing federal charges. Prosecutors say they assisted the former police chief in trying to help cover up the beating.
But in heavily redacted legal papers filed in federal court in Central Islip Tuesday, defense attorneys say the government is withholding evidence that would back up “a pivotal point” in Spota and McPartland’s defense at trial, set for Nov. 12. They say the two committed no crime because “Burke never admitted to Mr. McPartland or Mr. Spota, or to anyone else in their presence, that he had in fact assaulted Loeb, and indeed Burke vociferously denied it.”
The attorneys say the government apparently has information that Burke maintained his innocence to others besides Spota and McPartland, but “has refused to provide any interview reports or notes, or the grand jury testimony, of [redacted].”
“This is a pivotal point because … the government claimed that ‘everyone’ knew Burke was guilty, and scoffed at any notion that the defendants might not have known that,” the defense attorneys wrote. ”Thus, a critical issue at the trial will be whether Burke openly admitted his guilt to “everyone” — as claimed by the government — or whether he vehemently denied his guilt to just about anyone who would listen.”
The defense attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Joan Azrack to order the government to turn over the interviews or testimony even if prosecutors believe the material was not legally relevant because they believe Burke was lying.
The judge said she will make a decision later, after federal prosecutors respond in writing.
Burke has declined to testify at the trial for either the defense or the government, according to sources.
Burke’s attorney, John Meringolo, reached after the hearing, declined to comment.
A spokesman for the United States attorney’s office, John Marzulli, declined to comment.
The defense motion was filed the day before a routine status conference Wednesday in federal court in Central Islip.
During the conference, Azrack also said she would decide whether the defense would have to pay to get the Suffolk County email records that they are seeking of 15 or 20 potential witnesses who are government employees.
Federal prosecutor Lara Treinis Gatz said the county email system was antiquated and so could only provide the government with the emails of all county employees in bulk. She said it would be extremely costly for the government to extract the records the defense wanted in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars already spent to get the emails of Spota, McPartland and seven other unnamed people.
The prosecutor added that the defense was entitled to the records, but didn’t think the government should have to pay the cost. Treinis Gatz said the government had no reason to extract the other files because it had no interest in that information.
The trial should last three to four weeks, according to a proposed jury questionnaire also filed in federal court.
Among the 41 questions asked of prospective jurors is whether they or someone they knew had ever abused alcohol or received treatment for alcoholism. This is not a typical juror question, and may indicate someone in the case has a history of alcohol abuse, which might influence the jury’s opinion.
Spota and McPartland, who were present in court Wednesday, declined to comment afterward, as did Spota’s attorneys, Alan Vinegrad and Erin Monju; McPartland’s attorneys, Larry Krantz and Bradley Gershel; and federal prosecutors Treinis Gatz, Justina Geraci and Michael Maffei.