Publicity makes felony trials difficult to find jurors
By LIZ SKOCZYLAS
From Nushawn Williams to Anthony R. Taglianetti II, some court cases and trials in Chautauqua County have picked up more media attention than others.
Over the past 20 years, cases such as Nushawn Williams, the shooting of Jamestown Police Officer David Mitchell, the Gerry murders and, now, the murder of Keith Reed Jr., former Clymer Central School superintendent, have captured headlines, sometimes spanning a number of years.
According to James Subjack, former Chautauqua County district attorney and current Fredonia lawyer, there are no benefits to having a case in the public eye.
“You want to avoid as much publicity as you can, because you don’t want to interfere with the jury’s thought process and their deliberation,” Subjack said. “Avoid as much as you can. The one thing you don’t want to do is poison the entire jury panel one way or the other. The less that gets out publicly on the high-profile case … because, once it’s high-profile, it starts to catch more and more attention of people, and more and more people read it.”
In the second-degree murder trial for Anthony R. Taglianetti II, which is currently going through the jury selection process, Public Defender Ned Barone has been vocal about the amount of publicity the case has received.
“That’s what we’re finding out – everybody’s heard about this case,” Barone said. “That was one of our concerns. But every person is different; every individual is different. What we’re looking for are individuals – regardless of what they’ve heard or talked about – that can still be fair and impartial. For every individual, that’s different. Things affect everybody differently. … There’s no magic formula. It’d be easy if there was, but there isn’t.”
“The most high-profile case I think anyone has ever handled in this county was Nushawn Williams,” Subjack said. “That thing had national attention like crazy. I can remember the television trucks, CNN reporters, ABC reporters. That was just incredible. It’s certainly more publicity than any other case that I can think of that happened here.”
In 1997, Williams, 20 at the time, was the center of a media spectacle the likes of which Jamestown and Chautauqua County had never before seen.
Formerly a resident of Jamestown, Williams had been arrested by New York City police for selling crack cocaine to an undercover agent. In an unprecedented move Oct. 27, 1997, county public health officials went public with his HIV status since he was believed to have infected untold numbers with the disease.
At the time, authorities argued Williams knew full well he was HIV positive and could very well spread the virus to others when he had indiscriminate sex with dozens of local women, some of them below the legal age of consent. Williams maintains he was not aware of his HIV status. Some argue that even if he was aware, he did not take it seriously enough to curb his promiscuous behavior.
In the end, it was learned that Williams had infected 13 women, 11 of them in Chautauqua County, with HIV. Williams pleaded guilty in 1999, three years after accusations first surfaced, to reckless endangerment and statutory rape. The Bronx native was sentenced to four to 12 years in state prison by County Court Judge John T. Ward.
His prison term ended in 2010. However, Williams remains at the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden under civil confinement law of registered sex offenders. A jury in Mayville found that Nushawn Williams, 36, suffers from a mental abnormality that makes him subject to “civil management” and will either be confined to a secure treatment facility or kept under strict supervision, according to the attorney general’s office. The two-week trial was held out of the public eye because of health privacy laws.
“The (case) that generated probably the most coverage in a lot of years that I had was James Lewis, who shot Dave Mitchell,” Barone said. “That one generated a lot. There was a lot of publicity on that one, and it was a very sensitive issue, with a police officer being shot.”
On Sept. 15, 1999, Mitchell, a drug enforcement officer, and his partner, Scott DePietro, went to meet Lewis, a known drug informant. Mitchell had been hoping Lewis would become a confidential informant for the Southern Tier Regional Drug Task Force, and lead him to a larger drug supplier from the Rochester area. According to testimony given by DePietro, the subject walked to the driver’s side of Mitchell’s car, and fired one shot into the window, hitting Mitchell in the face. Lewis got away, while DePietro attended to Mitchell and set up a perimeter of officers. He was found several hours later.
Following court proceedings, Lewis was charged with two counts of first-degree attempted murder, aggravated assault on a police officer, attempted aggravated assault on a police officer and first-degree criminal use of a firearm. He was sentenced to 50 years to life.
In February 2001, Lewis was convicted on three federal charges following a week-long trial in U.S. District Court in Rochester. He was found to be guilty for conspiracy to possess and sell more than 50 grams of cocaine, distributing cocaine and using a firearm. He was sentenced to 43 3/4 years in federal prison, with the term to run consecutive to his other prison sentence.
At 10:30 p.m. on May 23, 2001, sheriff’s deputies were called to the scene of a double homicide that claimed the lives of Johnny T. Houston, 22, of Charlotte, N.C., and Richard M. Alicea Jr., 19, of 104 Isabella Ave., Jamestown, at the intersection of Harris Hill and 28 Creek roads, Gerry.
Early during the investigation, Sheriff Joe Gerace said Houston and Alicea had apparently been targeted. It took two years for a fuller picture to emerge when three secret indictments were handed up by a Chautauqua County grand jury charging Gregory Pattison, 32, of Jamestown, Daniel Diaz, 35, of Mexico, and Aaron Pike, 26, of Jamestown, with first-degree murder in the case. According to the indictments, Pattison was contracted by Diaz and Pike to kill Alicea, a father of two children who took care of a third child, and Houston, a friend of Alicea’s who was visiting his brother in Jamestown.
During the trial, it was discovered Alicea and Houston were killed over $80,000 in drugs and $80,000 in cash. Jodi Dickinson, Alicea’s mother, said despite being an admitted drug dealer, he had gone to the police to come clean before his death.
Pattison’s conviction has been overturned by the Fourth Appellate Division in Rochester on a technicality, but he is still in federal prison on marijuana trafficking convictions. Pike was also sentenced to life in prison while Diaz pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
“The cases I handled, there were always professional witnesses,” Subjack said. “Sometimes they were psychiatric, sometimes they were crime scene people. Nonetheless, (the jurors) have to be able to accept the opinion of somebody who wasn’t there, has no knowledge specifically of the events, because they weren’t there, but formulate an opinion based on certain factors that are given to them.”
On this particular case, an expert was called before jurors to give his professional opinion on blood patterns.
“On that one, you had the blowback, because the shootings were from such close range,” Subjack said. “From the blowback, you could tell where the gunman was positioned, and in what direction the shots were taken. That’s all opinion. (The expert) wasn’t there, he didn’t see it, but that’s the stuff the jury has to accept as well.”
ANTHONY R. TAGLIANETTI II
Keith Reed Jr., 51, had been reported missing by colleagues and friends on Sept. 23, 2012. Early the next morning, sheriff’s deputies returned to the home with a K-9 unit and, after a short search, discovered Reed’s body about 100 feet from his home. He had suffered multiple gunshot wounds.
Days after the discovery of Reed’s body, law enforcement officials announced they were looking for Anthony Robert Taglianetti II, a Dale City, Va., resident, as a suspect in connection with the murder. Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace had reported the men were “not unfamiliar with each other.”
On Sept. 28, 2012, the day Reed was laid to rest, Taglianetti was located and apprehended by members of the U.S. Marshals Service Fugitive Task Force and the Harrisonburg Police Department in the state of Virginia.
On Oct. 2, 2012, Taglianetti, the only suspect in the homicide of Reed, did not waive extradition to New York. Taglianetti then failed to file a writ of habeas corpus in Prince William County, Va., where he was being held. He was extradited to New York on Dec. 18, 2012. The next day, he pleaded innocent to a second-degree murder charge.
Jury selection for the case began Sept. 19, following months of hearings, conferences and preparation. Judge John T. Ward has told jurors he expected jury selection to last “a couple weeks.” Additionally, Ward said testimony is expected to begin the first week of October, continue throughout the month, and potentially spill into November.
Because of the media attention the case has received, Barone said it has been difficult to find jurors who have not already formed an opinion.
“(Picking a jury for this case) is much more difficult,” he said. “I can’t tell you (exactly why). It’s amazing. Every individual that has come in, everyone has just had (some knowledge of the case). I don’t know why. I wish I could tell you. It’s been very difficult.”
“Every high profile case has to be treated exactly the same way as any other case,” Subjack said. “There are always considerations to be taken regarding the outcome, obviously, how it’s going to impact public safety, how it’s going to impact the community. But, you have to treat them exactly the same. You can’t dance on eggshells because it’s high-profile. If you’re doing that, I think, you’re spending more time on avoiding its profile than you are making sure justice is done. So, I think it has to be treated the same.”
Despite some cases being high-profile in the media, Subjack said finding a jury is possible.
“You’d be surprised how many people live in vacuums, that have no idea what’s going on,” he said. “Just because they’re aware of it doesn’t disqualify them from being on the jury. What you’re looking for is somebody that hasn’t formulated an opinion with regard to the case.”
Although he is not working on the Taglianetti case, Subjack said he imagines there are several jurors of the 700 who have been called who have preconceived notions on the case. David Foley, district attorney, is charged with proving Taglianetti is guilty.
“We have no responsibilities at all. Defense doesn’t even have to present any evidence,” Barone said. “It’s the burden on the part of the district attorney. He has the burden of proof to do everything. We’re not required to do anything.”
Subjack said jurors have to be willing to accept their responsibilities in this case, which means accepting the law, however they may feel about it.
“The judge, at the end of this case, is going to say, ‘This is the law. This is what you have to consider, whether you like it or not.’ Most of the time, jury instructions are very – it seems to me anyway – jury instructions are very straight-forward,” he said. “They don’t offend anybody’s sensibilities. … Whether it makes sense or not, that’s the law and you have to follow it. You have to make sure they are able to follow instructions, and then you have to make sure they don’t have any preconceived notions about the offense itself, or the circumstances of the offense, or about the particular offense.”
Although a change of venue has come up several times during the jury selection process for the Taglianetti case, no formal plans have been made. When it comes to a change of venue, though, Subjack said it isn’t as easy as getting up and moving the court.
“People just think you say there’s been a lot of publicity, therefore you’re entitled to a change of venue,” Subjack said. “That’s not true. The jury panel has to be of such a nature that it’s impossible to get a jury based on the pre-trial publicity and the opinions that have been formed. But, the more that you put out there, and the more that’s written and spoken about it, the less likely it is you’re going to find somebody who can sit back and say, ‘Even though I’ve heard about it, I can be fair,’ or, even more unlikely, ‘I haven’t heard about it.'”
Following six days of jury selection, five jurors have been selected for the Taglianetti case.