Seeking A Balance

County DA Not Deterred By Recent Trial Outcomes

Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson inside his Mayville office. P-J file photo

MAYVILLE — As a public figure, Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson said he understands the amount of scrutiny his office has come under after a recent string of acquittals at trial.

Swanson, who became acting DA after David Foley was elected Chautauqua County Court judge in 2015, noted that criticism is part of the job — which is why he said he doesn’t “celebrate wins” after convictions or listens to detractors after losses.

“People aren’t going to pat you on the back,” Swanson told The Post-Journal last week in an in-depth interview. “They’re going to point out what you’re doing wrong. Nobody operates a perfect office. It’s just the way it goes.”

Swanson hit on several topics — from balancing homicide and other high-profile cases while managing a staff of 10 full-time and two part-time employees to butting heads with Foley in court. The district attorney during the last budget session spoke to the Chautauqua County Legislature in hopes of getting another full-time prosecutor in his office, an argument he said he plans to make again this year.

Swanson said the six prosecutors in his office that oversee felonies each handle between 150 to 200 felony cases a year. That’s compared to about 40 each annually for prosecutors in Erie County.

Swanson, at left, pictured during the second-degree murder trial of Rebecca Ruiz in Chautauqua Court. Photo by Andrew Kuczkowski

“There’s an over-arching problem to this particular office that I’ve found and it’s the staffing levels,” Swanson said. “That drives a lot of what we do here, unfortunately, and it shouldn’t. We should be able to prosecute our cases as we see fit.”

“At times we have to make decisions on prosecutions based on resources. That’s disheartening,” he continued. “I was in a position last year where I thought we were going to get an additional prosecutor and, late in the game, the legislature pulled that money.”

However, with acquittals in two murder and one attempted murder cases since taking the helm, Swanson has been the target of criticism from the public and local officials. Among those who have voiced displeasure with the DA’s office is Legislature Chairman PJ Wendel.

“The record of the DA is less than admirable,” Wendel said when asked if he would support a budget increase to the District Attorney’s Office. “There are a lot of pieces to that, but we have to get the pieces right.”

Swanson said the majority of cases handled by his office — about 98 percent — result in a conviction as most are handled through plea bargains and not trials. Swanson said he understands the frustration some may have with the lack of convictions in the few cases that have made it to court.

Photo by Jimmy McCarthy

“Being a public figure from what I’ve learned is that there are certain people who won’t be happy no matter what you do,” he said. “That being said, our obligation here is to develop cases that we can go with and get convictions.”

Last month, Dunkirk resident Rebecca Ruiz was found not guilty of second-degree murder and a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter in the July 6, 2017, shooting death of her boyfriend, Julian Duman. Ruiz fired through a door, believing her estranged husband was attempting to break into her home.

Swanson said a key witness who was reportedly with Ruiz at the time of the shooting changed his story shortly before trial. The prosecution planned to use the witness’ statement to Dunkirk police to counter Ruiz’s claim of self-defense.

Swanson later charged the witness — Quentin Watts — with filing a false statement to police. The district attorney said based on the remaining evidence, the jury was likely right to return the not guilty verdict on the murder charge. Ruiz was found guilty on a charge of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon and faces three and a half to 15 years in prison when sentenced in early June.

“I am happy with the outcome of that case considering what we had,” Swanson said.

Jamestown police Chief Harry Snellings, left, speaks alongside Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson during a press conference announcing the apprehension of Keith Robbins. P-J photo by John Whittaker

A year earlier, Barbara J. Redeye was found not guilty of second-degree murder for the Aug. 14, 2016, fatal stabbing of her 36-year-old half-brother, Dale Redeye, at a Lakeview Avenue apartment in Jamestown.

Swanson argued at trial that the Jamestown woman attacked and killed Dale Redeye during a fit of rage while Public Defender Ned Barone said his client acted in self-defense against a man prone to violence.

Swanson said he still has issues with Dale Redeye’s past — most notably a molestation charge when he was 13 years old — being allowed in court.

“We fought heavily against that evidence coming in,” he said. “We felt that the law was on our side, but the judge allowed that evidence in. … The jury felt that she acted in self-defense.”

Swanson said he has noticed an increase in skepticism from jurors toward witnesses and police. He said jurors have become “inundated with reports of police misconduct and wrongfully accused people that are acquitted after 20 years of being in prison.”

But that’s rarely the case, Swanson said.

“The reality is that police misconduct is so rare,” he said. “The number of police encounters every day in this country is huge. … There’s one bad encounter of all those hundreds of thousands of encounters a day, and that’s what gets highlighted. People think it’s a pervasive problem. The reality in this county is that we have a great group of local law enforcement officers here.”

Another potential issue involves the “CSI effect,” the belief that entertainment — including shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation — have led jurors to expect more forensic evidence to be presented in court in order to convict. Experts state there is little empirical data to back up the claim that the CSI effect exists, as noted by the Yale Law Review and National Institute of Justice.

Yet Swanson said he remains baffled after a jury this year acquitted Justin Haffa, a Cheektowaga man charged with first-degree attempted murder, first-degree robbery and second-degree assault of a Chautauqua County sheriff’s deputy in a Sept. 11, 2016, incident on Route 60 in the town of Pomfret. After crashing his car with his girlfriend inside, Haffa reportedly attacked the deputy during a field sobriety test with a knife before fleeing.

Despite looking, the knife was never found by investigators.

At trial, jurors found Haffa not guilty on the attempted murder, assault and robbery charge; he was found guilty on a third-degree robbery count. The trial was the second to take place after a mistrial was declared when Foley ruled the DA’s office failed to provide a DNA report to Haffa’s defense team, led by Barone.

Swanson said jurors told his office afterward the lack of a knife played a factor in the acquittal of the serious charges.

“The girlfriend of the defendant said she saw a knife, the police officer said she saw a knife and the defendant at some point, when he finally came with a statement, said ‘Yeah, I had a knife,'” Swanson said. “We know that he ran for 6 miles and for three hours. So we were fine on that knife, and I don’t know what we could have done different in that because we could have never given them what they asked for.”

“I worry about that case because we had two eye-witnesses that saw the same thing that described it to the jury,” he said. “And the jury glossed over that and didn’t believe, for some reason or another, that this officer was attacked with a knife. To this day I don’t know if I’ll ever get past that. Absent giving them the knife I don’t know what we could have done different to get a conviction on the robbery and assault charge that we had.”

And in a trial that ended last week, a jury acquitted Jamestown resident Alberto Acevedo of robbery after he reportedly held a cab driver at knife-point in April of last year. An assistant district attorney prosecuted the case.

“With our trial losses we are working towards remediating that,” Swanson said. “The other reality is that our cases, that are the best cases, typically won’t go to trial. It’s the marginal ones.”

Last week, the district attorney invited members of the legislature to visit his office to discuss any concerns. Swanson said no lawmaker has come to his office in the Gerace Office Building in Mayville since he became DA.

While trying to manage a staff in addition to his own caseload, Swanson noted that he has not seen eye-to-eye with his former boss, now the County Court judge. During the Haffa trial, Foley admonished Swanson on several occasions. After the DA’s office escorted Haffa’s girlfriend out of court after testifying to an office elsewhere to avoid having her subpoenaed by defense attorneys, Foley called the move “completely improper.”

Not long after, Foley said he had concerns with the actions of the District Attorney’s Office not only during the Haffa trial, but also future trials the court may have to sit in on.

Swanson said adjusting to a new judge in County Court in the wake of Judge John Ward’s retirement has proven difficult at times.

“I think it’s pretty evident over the last year that we’ve butted heads with our court,” Swanson said. “There’s an adjustment period that comes with managing and getting a level of comfort and predictability within your court that we’re trying to find, and that makes this job that much harder.”

In particular, Swanson noted Foley’s recent dismissal of a second-degree manslaughter charge against Thomas Jadlowski, the Sherman man who told police he thought he saw a deer Nov. 22 last year when he fired a fatal shot at Rosemary Billquist near her home in Sherman. Jadlowski was indicted by a grand jury for his role in the shooting, which occurred several hundred yards away from Billquist after sunset.

Foley dismissed the manslaughter charge after reviewing grand jury minutes and ruled Swanson erred by not fully explaining a lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide when questioned. Jadlowski was later arraigned again on the same charge after Swanson brought the case to another grand jury, though he strongly disagreed with Foley’s original ruling.

“I have spoken with, I don’t even know how many, DAs and (assistant district attorneys) in the state that expressed to me their concern with that decision and their hope that their judge doesn’t think that that’s the right route to go,” said Swanson, who maintains he adequately answered the juror’s question.

Swanson said he wanted to appeal Foley’s decision, but noted “the right thing to do for the family was just to move forward. And we did that.”

“It’s been very interesting over the last two years,” Swanson continued. “It’s a completely different job than managing caseloads.”

In the meantime, the district attorney said he looks forward to meeting with lawmakers while also preparing for upcoming trials. In addition to the Jadlowski case, Swanson is also preparing to prosecute a second-degree murder charge against Brian M. Korzeniewski, who is accused of killing his neighbor outside their East Sixth Street apartment in Jamestown last August.

“The people that work for me, and myself, we come here every day and we put forth the best effort we can,” he said.

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