QUEENS DAILY EAGLE: Queens’ New Wrongful Conviction Unit Fields First Application

January 02, 2020 By David Brand

An attorney who has devoted his career to overturning wrongful convictions has filed the first application with the Queens District Attorney Office’s new Conviction Integrity Unit, alleging that investigators manufactured a reason for interrogating his client and that a prosecutor withheld key pieces of evidence leading up to the trial.

Lawyers walking outside Queens, NY courthouse.

Attorney John O’Hara, whose own wrongful conviction for voter fraud was overturned in Brooklyn in 2017, filed the 12-page application on behalf of Joseph Meyer, a Howard Beach man convicted of first-degree gang assault and first-degree assault for his role in an attack on off-duty police officer Damien Bartels during a 2009 road rage incident near the Queensborough Bridge. 

Meyer was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2012, though an appellate court reduced the sentence to 12 years.

Prior to Katz taking office, the Queens DA’s Office remained the only New York City prosecutor’s office without a conviction review unit. Though no staffing announcements have been made, O’Hara told the Eagle he handed the application to Bryce Benjet, a veteran attorney with the Innocence Project who will be leading the Queens DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit.

The prosecutor on the case in question, Assistant District Attorney Christine Olivieri, said Bartels and his cousin engaged in an argument with a group of people who later blocked traffic and approached Bartels’ car. After Bartels exited the vehicle, he was attacked by at least one member of the group, shattering his nose and both his eye sockets, prosecutors said. 

“You committed a brutal crime – you literally broke a man’s face,” Queens Supreme Court Justice Joseph Zayas told Meyer at sentencing, the New York Post reported at the time.

Meyer was the only person convicted and sentenced for the assault, though Bartels and two other eyewitnesses in the car did not identify him as the assailant.

Prosecutors brought the case against Meyer based on a fingerprint found on Bartels’ car, and investigators showed Bartels and witnesses a photo array that included a picture of Meyer — though they did not identify him as a suspect, according to the application. O’Hara questioned how investigators made the fingerprint match or obtained a photograph because Meyer had no previous criminal record.

“It is a mystery as to where the fingerprints and photograph came from,” O’Hara wrote in the application. Meyer’s defense attorney “rolled over” and never challenged the investigation or the legitimacy of the fingerprint, he said.

Even “if taken as true, there is no way of determining if Meyer’s print was from the first incident, where there was no assault, or the second incident where the assault occurred,” O’Hara wrote in the application.

O’Hara also contends that Olivieri, the ADA, withheld detectives’ written reports of interviews with witnesses and a treating physician — documents known as “DD5s” — as well as surveillance footage of the attack that was used to create an NYPD wanted poster.

Nevertheless, detectives asked Meyer to come to the 108th precinct for questioning in a “hit and run case” and he gave a statement, without an attorney present, that placed him at the scene of the assault, according to the application. That statement provided probable cause for Meyer’s arrest and he was jailed pending trial.

“We request CIU investigate this case and file the appropriate 440 motion to overturn Joseph Meyer’s conviction on the merits,” O’Hara wrote in the application. “The issue is the conduct of ADA Oliveri regarding the video and the DD5’s, both of them concealed at trial and the critical Suppression Hearing.”

Each of the DD5s  “concealed from the defense contained exculpatory material,” O’Hara added.

The Queens DA’s Office did not provide a response to questions for this story, but in May 2019, Katz issued a position paper outlining her proposed “Conviction Integrity Unit.” She said the unit would be headed by an attorney with “extensive prosecutorial and defense experience” who reports directly to the DA and is separate from the Appeal Bureau. 

She told the Eagle in February 2019 that she “pledged to create a Conviction Integrity Unit to work with family members, community leaders and defense attorneys to ensure that no one remains jailed for a crime they didn’t commit.”

“An additional level of review, by an independent state panel, to further this fight for justice would be an important step forward, building on the state’s recent actions on criminal justice reforms,” she said. “As DA, I will make Queens a leader in addressing wrongful convictions and establishing much-needed bail and discovery reform.”