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When the Villain Has a Badge

June 13, 2017

In the 1980s and 1990s, Louis Scarcella was the best homicide detective in New York City.  In an era demanding law enforcement to be tough on crime, Scarcella, well-dressed and charismatic, made a name for himself by solving some of the most high-profile murders.  Scarcella charmed witnesses and juries and easily secured confessions and convictions.  Scarcella was said to be able to get things the other detectives couldn’t.  In 1990, one of these investigations led Scarcella to David Ranta, who was convicted for shooting holocaust survivor and Hasidic rabbi, Chaskel Werzberger—Mr. Ranta got a life sentence.  At the time, no one stopped to consider whether his investigations were too good to be true.  After all, the Brooklyn DA’s office needed to demonstrate they were doing something about crime and Scarcella was serving them murderer after murderer on a shiny silver platter.  With each conviction, the DA was one step closer to appeasing the public panic brought about by the crack epidemic plaguing the streets of New York.   Twenty years later, public attitude has somewhat shifted as there has been some focus on wrongful convictions and a push to reform the criminal justice system.  In response, in 2011, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office under Charles Hynes established its “Conviction Integrity Unit” (CIU) to review potentially problematic cases.  Many questions had surfaced surrounding several of Scarcella’s cases and the DA’s office announced it would review over fifty cases in which Scarcella played a chief role in the conviction.  So far, seven of these convictions have been overturned.  Scarcella manipulated the investigations to fit his narrative and send his suspects to prison, guilty or not. In 2013, David Ranta, after 23 years in prison, became the first of the Scarcella defendants freed.  The Brooklyn DA’s office concluded that Scarcella’s investigation did not add up, that Ranta did not belong behind bars, and asked a judge to release him.  Multiple convictions were then overturned.  As it turned out, Scarcella coerced or falsified confessions, and bribed or blackmailed witnesses to lie on the stand.  Some of these defendants said Scarcella beat them until they signed a confession, others that he manufactured it altogether.  Witnesses reported they were threatened with perjury, jail, and even losing their children, if they did not say what Scarcella told them to say.  Notably, Scarcella also relied on the testimony of one crack-riddled prostitute, Teresa Gomez, as his star witness in at least four different murder trials. Mr. Ranta was convicted despite a lack of physical evidence connecting him to the murder; his conviction stemmed instead from witness accounts and a confession, all of which since appear to have been coerced or plainly falsified by Scarcella.  An eyewitness testified that he was told by a detective—Scarcella was the lead detective on the case—to pick the man with “the big nose” out of a lineup, with Ranta being the only one fitting that description.  Two other witnesses admitted to explicitly lying in exchange for clemency in their own unrelated cases, and said that Scarcella had even accommodated them by having them leave jail to smoke crack and have sex with prostitutes in exchange for their testimony.  Mr. Ranta himself steadfastly maintained that Scarcella […]

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A Face of Evil

June 1, 2017

Massachusetts forensic chemist, Annie Dookhan, played God to advance her career.  As she sat in her lab and deliberately mishandled drug samples, she determined the fate of over twenty thousand lives.  Dookhan carelessly and selfishly claimed to be “the best chemist on staff,” leaving little regard for the destruction she left in her wake.  Not only did she send innocent men and women to jail by tainting evidence—a gross injustice for which the Boston DA’s offices refuse to take responsibility—but, she also cost taxpayers millions of dollars to mop up the shattered pieces of the criminal justice system that she broke. Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and tampering with evidence.  She marked tests positive without properly testing them, mixed samples to create positive tests, and forged signatures to cover up inconsistent results.  Dookhan was known as Superwoman by her colleagues, yet that nickname couldn’t be further from what she turned out to be.  In the comics, Superwoman saved lives, Dookhan, however, destroyed the lives of over twenty thousand people. Shockingly, Dookhan was sentenced to only 3 years in prison, a sentence shorter than many sentences issued to the innocent people that were wrongfully convicted due to her complete neglect for human life and lack of respect for the criminal justice system.  Dookhan should have been punished with a sentence proportionate to the crimes she committed, yet she wasn’t. Although more than 20,000 cases, around 95%, of the 24,000 tainted by Dookhan have been dismissed, the Boston DA’s offices continue to defend the original convictions.  As quoted in The New York Times, a spokesman for one of the Boston DAs, Daniel Conley, claimed that these convictions were not wrongful, but were rather “cases that could be appealed on procedural grounds.” If the ACLU had not stepped in and filed a lawsuit, Bridgeman v. DA of Suffolk County, most of the “Dookhan defendants” wouldn’t have filed for post-conviction relief.  Before the suit, less than 1,200 of these defendants had filed for such relief. In its defense of this suit, the DA proclaimed that because most of the Dookhan defendants’ convictions resulted from guilty pleas, they were surely guilty of something and, therefore, to dismiss such a high volume of cases would lead to “chaos.”  The DA demonstrated a cavalier indifference to due process and insulted our criminal justice system, which is predicated on innocent until proven guilty.  The “chaos” of this situation does not stem from the rightful dismissal of these 20,000 cases, but is due instead to the deleterious effect that Dookhan’s ego had on the lives of these 20,000 wrongfully convicted individuals. The government, which has the power to strip people of their liberty, must be held to the highest standard of integrity.  Those who take advantage of their position should be punished to the degree of the damage they imposed.  Superwoman Dookhan, playing God, ruined 20,000 lives and should have been punished more severely and a contrite attitude by the DA would go a long way toward repairing the trust between the public and law enforcement.

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Prosecutor Pleads Guilty To Conducting Illegal Wiretaps In Bizarre Love Triangle

April 7, 2017

Every now and then I read something that makes my head shake. This is one of them. Here, a (now former) prosecutor, Tara Lenich, formerly of the Brooklyn DA’s Office, who took an oath to uphold the Constitution, ran illegal wiretaps so she could spy on the other two parts of her bizarre love triangle, another prosecutor and a detective. Fortunately, she was caught, and this week she pleaded guilty to the above in Brooklyn federal court. Photo Credit: New York Law Journal Reading about this reminds me of Lord Acton’s famous quotation which has never rung truer: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In our society, there are no actors closer to absolute power than prosecutors. While prosecutors are part of the executive branch of government, there are few checks on their power—in fact, there are more on the president himself. This prosecutor forged a judge’s signature because she couldn’t compel the phone company to do the wiretap without such a signature because that is what’s required by Title III. Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, also known as the “Wiretap Act”: 1) prohibits the unauthorized, nonconsensual interception of “wire, oral, or electronic communications” by government agencies as well as private parties; 2) establishes procedures for obtaining warrants to authorize wiretapping by government officials; and 3) regulates the disclosure and use of authorized intercepted communications by investigative and law enforcement officers. According to the DOJ, “Congress passed Title III in response to congressional investigations and published studies that found extensive wiretapping had been conducted by government agencies and private individuals without the consent of the parties or legal sanction. Congress found that the contents of these tapped conversations and the evidence derived from them were being used by government and private parties as evidence in court and administrative proceedings.” Title III was enacted to prevent wiretap above and misuse by government officials. Here, this prosecutor circumvented Title III and used her absolute power to conduct illegal wiretaps. She is a disgrace to the criminal justice system, an insult to all ethical prosecutors, and her actions further erode trust in our system of government. I hope her time in prison will serve as a deterrent to other prosecutors who choose to play fast and loose with the 4th Amendment.

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Preet Bharara’s Spectacular Firing

March 20, 2017

(Photo: Getty Images) VINOO VARGHESE is a criminal defense attorney and a former prosecutor who defended multiple high-profile cases against Preet Bharara. Arrogant. For once, I’m not referring to our 45th President, but instead to Preet Bharara, the man referred to as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” and the “Showman Prosecutor.” He made a spectacle out of the fact that he was fired—though it is normal for a new president to fire sitting US Attorneys. President Clinton did this, so did President (W.) Bush, and so did President Obama. To many, Bharara is a hero for not resigning and instead demanding to be fired. Bharara isn’t a hero, unlike Sally Yates, who President Trump fired because she refused to follow his patently unconstitutional travel ban. Bharara’s demand to be fired while everyone else submitted their resignations was classic Bharara—the Showman. The media classified Bharara’s firing as another example of this President’s awful judgment (which there are plenty)—but this was just normal politics. The US Attorney is an “at-will” job—serving at the will of the sitting president. Here, even if President-Elect Trump had asked him to stay on—President Trump’s will changed—too bad for Bharara but good for the public. Bharara seemed to forget that he worked at-will or simply chose to ignore it since he believed himself bigger than the position he held for nine years. Many of us who believe in criminal justice will not miss Bharara. While he was a media darling, to others, like me, who defended those he chose to go after, he was just a bully. He presided over an office with unlimited resources that could pick and choose his targets with impunity. His press conferences were spectacles, by which he polluted jury pools and created hostile atmospheres, making it nearly impossible for anyone accused to receive a fair trial. He was indeed a Showman. For example, in one such press conference, Bharara, the Showman, claimed that a former client of mine, Rengan Rajaratnam, who he accused of insider trading, shared the same DNA for criminality as his previously convicted brother, Raj Rajaratnam. Bharara had no problem claiming Rengan was predisposed to committing criminal acts, but where was Bharara’s apology to Rengan when a jury found him not guilty of all charges? Don’t hold your breath—it didn’t come. Arrogant. Later, Bharara called Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, who presided over Rengan’s acquittal, “‘the worst federal judge’ he’d ever encountered.” Arrogant. Sore loser. Another federal judge, Richard Sullivan, questioned whether one of Bharara’s bombastic press conferences served any meaningful law enforcement purpose. In this one, Bharara disparaged another former client of mine, NYC Councilman Dan Halloran. Judge Sullivan said Bharara’s comments announcing Dan’s arrest “sound[ed] like the theme from Mighty Mouse.” “This seems to be designed for tabloid consumption,” Judge Sullivan said, adding, “there should be a question asked that is that appropriate at the preconviction stage.” The judge harkened back to his days as an assistant U.S. attorney, saying there was a time when prosecutors would just state what the charges were and not editorialize on the matter. Bharara had called Dan the “quarterback” of a “smorgasbord […]

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A Christmas Story: Our American Client Freed From Brazilian Prison

December 21, 2016

Happy Holidays! We are thrilled to announce that we were able to help free our client — just in time for Christmas and the New Year! After serving over three brutal years in prison, mostly in Brazil awaiting extradition to the United States, we were able to show a Manhattan federal judge why she should give him time served. Our client, an American citizen, had been living and working in Brazil for some time with his wife. While there, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York obtained through the State Department an extradition warrant for him to face financial crimes charges. While awaiting extradition, the Brazilian federal police incarcerated him, and the Brazilian court system held him for nearly three years. Our client wasn’t fighting extradition, but instead was left in diplomatic limbo as the American government squabbled with the Brazilian government over the extradition of our client. Vinoo Varghese, our principal, visited our client at the São Paulo Polícia Federal Jail and met with him to prepare for his defense in New York federal court. While waiting to be extradited, our client endured horrifying living conditions such as freezing temperatures in his cell, solitary confinement 23/24 hours a day, spoiled food, and fierce intimidation by both prison staff and gangs. He suffered severe insomnia, drastic weight loss and lived in constant fear of death. Weekly visits from his loving wife were his only solace. Our client returned to the United States a shell of his previous self, emaciated, and timid. Yet, the battle wasn’t over. He still faced up to another 17 years in jail, but we believed that he shouldn’t be incarcerated another day. So, we put together a sentencing mitigation package that the federal prosecutor said was the best he had ever seen. This package contained letters from numerous friends, colleagues, family members, and others including a Naval Officer, who came and spoke on our client’s behalf at the sentencing hearing. We also submitted reports from Human Rights Watchand The Economist about the deplorable conditions of Brazilian prisons. We were able to convince the judge that our client had suffered enough and she ordered him released and sentenced him to time served. A short while later, he was finally reunited with his wife, just in time for Christmas and the New Year. We are elated that our client is now able to resume his life with his wife as a free man. Our client embracing his wife as a newly freed man! Jailhouse in São Paulo, Brazil where Vinoo visited our client From the Team, Vinoo Varghese Tina McDonald Matthew De La Torre Katie Lanphere Giselle Muñoz

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The Post Consults Vinoo Varghese About Governor Chris Christie & Bridgegate

November 1, 2016

The New York Post consulted our principal, Vinoo Varghese, as a legal expert concerning the allegations against Governor Chris Christie in the infamous Bridgegate scandal and trial. David Wildstein, a former official in Governor Christie’s administration, testified that the Governor knew that the George Washington Bridge (GWB) was closed in retaliation against the Fort Lee, NJ mayor for not endorsing him in his gubernatorial reelection campaign. Wildstein further testified that when told of the GWB closure at the 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial in Manhattan, Governor Christie laughed in response. Amidst the buzz of Wildstein’s testimony, many are beginning to wonder whether the Governor will face charges himself. Vinoo advised the Post about the legal standard for conspiracy and explained why prosecutors may be hesitant to charge Governor Christie. Here’s the specific quote: Legal experts told The Post that Wildstein’s testimony may prompt the public to ask why Christie wasn’t charged. But “it may be [prosecutors] have nothing other than this guy’s testimony,” said Manhattan lawyer Vinoo Varghese, referring to Wildstein. “For all we know, [Christie] may have thought it was a joke.”

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Court Victory Against the IRS

August 24, 2016

A 6-year long ordeal for our client finally ended when a federal jury found him Not Guilty of All Charges last month. In previous newsletters we discussed how this client was tried and wrongfully convicted due to the testimony of a lying government witness. We fought to get him a new trial and succeeded when the federal District Court judge presiding over the case agreed with our view that the verdict was a “manifest injustice.” The government then appealed the judge’s decision granting a new trial to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. We defended our client in the appellate court and won there too. Yet, despite our victories before the District Court and in the Second Circuit, the IRS kept going after our innocent client. Statistically, the IRS wins 99.75% of all cases they bring so they decided to try him again last month. We were there again to fight for him. After three weeks of trial, the jury deliberated less than 2 hours and cleared our client of all charges. Though statistically, we only had a .25% chance of winning, we prevailed and our client finally got the justice he deserved.   Defense team outside the Eastern District of New York Courthouse after our win. From Left: Joseph Caiazzo; Vinoo Varghese; our Client; Dennis Ring; & Katie Lanphere. Articles fromLaw360 about the trial win and our prior appellate victory can be found on our firm’s press page here. Special mentions and thanks are due to co-counsel Dennis Ring, our resident sage, Larry Sharpe, and our forensic accounting expert, David Gannaway.

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New York Law Journal Seeks Vinoo Varghese’s Comments About High Profile Trial

October 20, 2015

The New York Law Journal sought Vinoo’s opinion on the highly-covered 76-day trial in which the government charged three former executives with fraud claiming their actions led to the demise of the white-shoe law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf. The judge declared a mistrial yesterday after 21 days of deliberations and the jury deadlocked on most counts against the three. Vinoo described to the New York Law Journal the process of and history behind a judge’s instructions to a jury to continue deliberations when there’s no verdict. He also explained what a mistrial means for the defense and client. Specifically Vinoo told the New York Law Journal: If a jury hasn’t reached a verdict and sends notes declaring that it is deadlocked, the judge can read a so-called “Allen” charge instruction, derived from an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case, that is basically a push from the judge to reach a verdict…. Some defense lawyers believe that a mistrial is good because you live to fight another day, but the question then becomes, does the client have the stomach for that. This isn’t a simple issue for a defense lawyer. You can read the full article quoting Vinoo on our website’s press page here.

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Vinoo Varghese Named A Super Lawyer

October 19, 2015

We are so pleased to announce that our principal, Vinoo Varghese, has been selected to the 2015 New York Metro Super Lawyers list — an honor only 5% of lawyers receive each year! Vinoo’s profile on the Super Lawyers website can be viewed here. A brief biography of Vinoo is also featured in the Super Lawyers Magazine. Click on the image below to see his page in the digital version of the magazine. A special video providing more details including an explanation of the selection process can be found on our website here. Thank you all for the support you’ve given us with your consistent kind words of encouragement and the trust you’ve given us by allowing us the privilege of defending those you care about. We couldn’t have become as successful without your support and trust.

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Our Victory Against DOJ TAX & IRS

June 28, 2015

We are so pleased to announce that last month we secured another victory for one of our clients — this time against the Department of Justice (DOJ) Criminal Tax Division and IRS — in a federal appellate court. In January, we had told you that a federal district court judge had granted our retrial motion for our client, who was wrongly accused in a criminal tax case. When our client was arrested in August 2013, the DOJ & IRS issued a joint press release announcing his indictment. Our client, a Peruvian immigrant and owner of a construction company, who in good faith had relied on the advice of his accountant, was charged with tax fraud based mainly on that accountant’s testimony. Undeterred, in 2014, we went to trial and our client took the stand in his own defense. At trial, the judge found our client’s testimony more credible than that of the accountant. The judge, in fact, declared that the accountant’s trial testimony was “patently incredible” — in layman’s terms — the accountant lied and lied often. The judge also concluded that federal prosecutors had made “truly fallacious” and “baseless” arguments in their summations that “inflamed the jury and tainted its deliberations” causing them to “stray from the facts” leading to an unjust verdict. The judge held that the verdict against our client constituted a “manifest injustice” and ordered a retrial under Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure in order to “avert a miscarriage of justice.” Despite all these problems, the government decided to appeal the judge’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. After oral arguments on April 15, Tax Day, no less, against the DOJ Criminal Tax Division, the Court of Appeals agreed with us, found the government’s evidence “problematic” and affirmed the judge’s decision granting our motion for a retrial. We refused to let an unjust result against our client stand. We didn’t give up when others did, we fought for him, and achieved what the magazine Law360 called a “rare” victory because of the small number of such cases that prevail on appeal. Read more about this great win for our client here.

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