Area detectives and police chiefs welcomed the election of Frank A. Sedita III as Erie County’s top prosecutor four years ago.
But as he begins a second term as district attorney, Sedita’s former cheerleaders in law enforcement are turning into some of his main critics.
They say he cherry-picks cases he is certain will end in successful prosecutions, refuses to take cases unless the evidence is ironclad, and relishes high conviction rates more than the fight for justice.
“Sedita wants to plea everything out, and you can’t plea everything out,” said Dana J. Britton, director of public safety in Lackawanna. “It seems that it’s all a numbers game. Everything is by the numbers, meaning conviction rates. You’re going ahead and doing plea outs, and criminals are back on the street. That comes back to haunt you.”
“Police constantly deal with the same people who should be put in jail. I hear this all over from police.”
The Buffalo News interviewed 21 members of the law enforcement community from city, county, state and federal agencies, and all voiced the same complaints.
Sedita bristles at the criticism, saying it is his sworn duty to ensure that only the guilty are convicted and that innocent people are not put on trial. In fact, his office has exonerated dozens of people police charged with felonies, and his efforts to ensure innocent people are not convicted has won him praise from the New York City-based Innocence Project.
Still, he notes that the conviction rate for his office stands at 98 percent.
“Obtaining 3,868 convictions out of 3,978 felony cases filed over the last two years demonstrates that our prosecution decisions are consistently sound,” Sedita said.
But police say the conviction rate is inflated because Sedita won’t take the tough cases. Among those:
• The fatal shooting of Fred Rozier, 20, of Buffalo, which occurred in February during a robbery inside a car parked on the 100 block of Deerfield Avenue. Police say they have enough evidence to bring a murder charge. Sedita says a decision was reached between his office and an assistant U.S. attorney to let that case go to federal court for possible prosecution.
• The asphyxiation death of Bianca Cartagena, an 8-year-old Amherst resident, whose body was found two years ago in her mother’s home. Police close to this case say there is evidence to prosecute the child’s suspected killer. Sedita says the case may be presented to a grand jury because of efforts his office has undertaken.
• Jarrell Lillard, 15, of Rickert Avenue, Buffalo, who was slain in March 2003 on Masten Avenue. A witness can identify the drive-by shooter, police say. Sedita says the witness refuses to cooperate and that police failed to provide legally sufficient evidence for charges.
• Nicholas S. Sweeney, a North Tonawanda resident, was gunned down in an Eggertsville driveway in August 2010 and died several hours later. Enough information was obtained to make a case against the alleged killer, police say, but the DA said there is more than one suspect and the shooter may have been defending himself.
The district attorney’s critics say he has imposed unrealistic standards on police, resulting in officers sometimes not making arrests or, in other cases, making arrests only to see the charges dismissed because the DA will not prosecute.
“They don’t like the quality of our witnesses, but that is what we are dealt with,” one veteran Buffalo homicide detective said. “We don’t have too many people getting killed in front of churches where we could bring in nuns and priests as witnesses. ... That’s not how it works.”
The murder of Angela Moss
Sedita’s reluctance has prompted some area law enforcement agencies to go to federal prosecutors. One such case might be the killing of Angela M. Moss of Amherst in summer 2009.
Moss was shot in the back of the head on the night of Aug. 28, 2009, and her body was left along California Road, near the Orchard Park nursing home where she worked.
A few days later, her boyfriend, Ronald Epps, filed a claim for her $100,000 life insurance.
Local police believed they had built a strong murder case against Epps, but Sedita refused to move forward against the suspect, according to law enforcement officials familiar with the details of the investigation.
Federal investigators and prosecutors got involved at the request of Orchard Park police, and they felt so strongly once they started working with town police that they charged Epps with fraud in federal court. In their court filing, federal prosecutors said Epps shot Moss in the back of the head and dumped her body.
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., in fact, talked to the district attorney’s office about the potential for a state trial against Epps. Hochul indicated there was no federal murder charge that would apply in the case.
When Epps was arraigned in U.S. District Court in October on the fraud charge, a federal magistrate demanded to know if Sedita intended to prosecute Epps for murder.
“I’m not going to hold this court hostage,” Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. said.
Epps has yet to be charged with murder, though police insist there is “enough probable cause” to arrest Epps on state murder charges.
“It’s a strong, solid case,” a law enforcement official said of the evidence to bring a murder charge.
Sedita declines to discuss the case.
‘Not enough evidence’
Another case that upsets police: the cold case murder of Patricia Rodriguez.
Her body was found April 13, 1979, sprawled over a grave marker in Lackawanna’s Holy Cross Cemetery. The 21-year-old woman was stabbed 108 times.
Lackawanna police say they are frustrated because they have evidence that points to one person, someone she knew very well, and that evidence includes information unearthed when the case was recently reopened. Yet Sedita still won’t take the case.
The huge number of stab wounds told police that someone had a “personal reason” for killing her, Lackawanna Public Safety Director Britton said.
“To me, that’s an indication of rage, a very personal reason for killing someone,” Britton has told The News. “It’s not like shooting somebody once and running away. This person spent a lot of time and effort in assaulting and killing this young woman.”
Police also were told their chief suspect had beaten Rodriguez in the past.
Patricia Scinta told The News that she saw her daughter on numerous occasions with bruises from beatings from that suspect.
“One time, he was hitting her right here in our front hallway,” Scinta said. “I grabbed him by the hair and made him stop.”
And on her last night alive, according to police and her mother, Rodriguez went to a bar not far from the cemetery to meet the suspect.
That individual was questioned about a week after the murder, but he denied knowing anything about the killing.
“The case of Patty Rodriguez should have been presented to the grand jury and still should be,” said Britton, who has 23 years experience as a detective. “Not every case is going to have DNA evidence or several eyewitnesses.”
Sedita says no. The original investigation resulted in the “loss or compromising of crucial evidence while in the possession of the Lackawanna Police Department, and the absence of critical witnesses ...” he said.
He also noted that previous district attorneys have declined to prosecute the Rodriguez case.
“Neither Edward Cosgrove nor Richard Arcara, nor Kevin Dillon, nor Frank Clark, prosecuted that case, either, for the same reason: There’s not enough evidence,” he said.
Lackawanna police and investigators from other departments emphasize that they reworked the case and uncovered new evidence that should go to a grand jury.
“The case has been actively investigated, and there are new developments,” said a law enforcement official familiar with what has been uncovered. “And when it comes to new evidence, it is significant. It is both physical and eye-witness.”
Evidence comes first
Lt. James Panus, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, said he has heard the complaints about Sedita.
“Some of the members have been speaking to me about their frustrations about the prosecutorial efforts of the district attorney’s office. I realize, though, that the DA has constraints, and I have met and talked with Mr. Sedita regarding an exchange of information between his office and the Buffalo Police Department to facilitate his prosecutorial efforts,” Panus said.
Sedita said that while he and his staff respect the hard work of police officers, his office cannot be swayed by emotions, hunches and opinions.
“Sometimes a defendant is properly charged, sometimes a defendant is undercharged, and sometimes a defendant is wrongfully charged. In any of these events, it is the prosecutor who is called upon to review the evidence to determine whether that evidence is credible, admissible, legally sufficient and factually sufficient. If it is, we prosecute,” he said.
When those standards are not met, Sedita said, his office either asks police to continue the investigation or he declines to prosecute.
“Our review process has resulted in the exoneration of 43 defendants who were accused of felonies by police officers. ... Please note that all of these exonerations occurred after the defendant’s arrest but before the ordeal of a trial,” the DA said. “It would be unlawful and unethical for me to prosecute a case that I know does not have sufficient evidence.”
Sedita’s scrutiny of criminal allegations brought him accolades from the Innocence Project in New York City, which cited increasing numbers of wrongly convicted individuals obtaining their freedom through exonerating DNA evidence.
“Given that we have learned a lot about the flaws in the system through DNA exoneration, we should value prosecutors who are heeding these lessons and making sure they are prosecuting the right people,” said Innocence Project spokesman Paul Cates.
One critic steps forward
Many of Sedita’s critics in law enforcement did not want to be named for this article, noting that they have to keep a working relationship with him.
Sedita responded that it was unfair of them to hide their criticism behind the cloak of anonymity.
“I believe it is more realistic to conclude that your police sources realize that I would be better able to refute their claims, were I to know their identity,” Sedita said.
One exception is Capt. Gregg Blosat, who wrote an article in the Buffalo PBA’s union newspaper, the Blue Line, arguing Sedita needs to take a more aggressive stance against shooters and their accomplices.
“The statute reads burden of proof is beyond reasonable doubt, which DOES NOT mean all doubt, so help the jurors understand that,” Blosat wrote. “If you actually want to stop the blood – prosecute all shooters.”
Police in Buffalo and in the suburbs told The Buffalo News they appreciated Blosat for taking a public stand.
And Sedita’s explanations that he knows best about the rules of evidence failed to convince his critics.
“Police know the rules of evidence when it comes to prosecution,” said one high-ranking police official who has been involved in several successful homicide cases.
Another police source, a veteran Buffalo homicide detective, said that when he or his colleagues call the DA’s office to move forward with an arrest, the first question asked is whether the suspect has confessed.
“They want it tied up with a ribbon all the time. Obviously, there are cases where we do have confessions, and they run over to take them,” he said, “but there are other cases where we do not, and those are the cases where we are told ‘Hold off’ or ‘We are going to need more evidence.’ ”
Panus, the PBA leader, says he would like to bring about a meeting between frustrated police officials and the DA’s office “so that every one of us can be on the same page.”
Until that happens, hard feelings are likely to continue between police of several agencies and the district attorney.
“You have police personnel doing their best to bring the bad guys in, but if it appears to prosecutors that it is not a 100 percent slam-dunk case, then they’ll opt not to move forward,” another Buffalo investigator said. “Often there’s great evidence, and it’s something we should let the jury system decide on.”