Judge grants mistrial in Haffa case

Evidence wasn’t handed over to defense before prosecution rested case

Ned Barone, Chautauqua County public defender, confers with his client, Justin Haffa, during a previous session in Chautauqua County Court. P-J file photo by Jimmy McCarthy

MAYVILLE — The Justin Haffa attempted murder case came to a screeching halt Tuesday as the Hon. David Foley granted the defense’s request for a mistrial amid evidence they didn’t receive from the District Attorney’s Office.

The decision was made after Public Defender Ned Barone told the judge that a DNA report was never provided to his office until after the prosecution rested its case. He said it was a violation of the Brady rule, which requires the prosecution to turn over all exculpatory evidence, or evidence that might exonerate the defendant, to the defendant in a criminal case.

With Foley’s ruling, a pre-trial conference will take place Sept. 22 as the prosecution and defense will present their cases over again.

Jurors reported at 9:30 a.m. as usual but were never let in the courtroom. Following a lunch recess, they were released of their duties following Foley’s decision shortly after 1:30 p.m. A new jury will be selected.

Barone initially requested a dismissal of the indictment against Haffa, which includes first-degree attempted murder, first-degree robbery and aggravated assault on a police officer. Foley denied that request and called it a “drastic remedy.”

When Barone presented the issue Tuesday morning, District Attorney Patrick Swanson acknowledged the matter fell on his office. He said he had every intention to hand the report over.

Swanson declined comment following Foley’s ruling. Barone told the OBSERVER following the ruling that a mistrial was appropriate under the circumstances. He said it was a good result for Haffa as they now go back to the drawing board.

“Certain information that could have proved helpful to the defense should have been provided,” Barone said. “It denied us any opportunity to explore any defenses.”

The report that Barone said his office never received relates to evidence collected following the Sept. 11 incident in which Haffa allegedly attacked deputy Sara Cunningham during a field sobriety test on Route 60 in the town of Pomfret. A T-shirt and fingernail clippings from Haffa were collected by sheriff’s investigators as well as a swab from Cunningham. The items were sent to a forensic lab in Erie County where a report was produced.

On Sept. 5, the prosecution called sheriff’s Investigator Kristie Lyon to the stand to discuss evidence collected, including the shirt and fingernail clippings among other items.

The prosecution rested its case last Thursday and the defense began by bringing two witnesses to the stand. No witnesses were called Tuesday as Barone brought the discovery violation to Foley’s attention.

If he received the DNA report, Barone said he would have called an expert to review it so he could ask questions during cross-examination. Barone also said he would have pursued a different line of questions and different types of jurors if he had knowledge of the information.

Prosecutor Christopher Belling conceded to Foley that a Brady violation did occur. He said after the defense discovered the report a week ago, both sides “assumed they had it.”

In addition, Belling told the judge there were remedies that could keep trial moving. Foley turned down the ideas mostly due to the fact the prosecution already rested its case.

Belling also discussed details in the report that he said could prove beneficial to the defense. Specifically, the DNA report from the Erie County forensic lab found no DNA of a female on the male’s finger nails. It’s alleged that Haffa tried to choke the deputy.

However, the report stated the shirt allegedly worn by Haffa had a female’s DNA on it.

Before granting the mistrial request, Foley said that “it’s unfortunate it had to come to this” between the taxpayer dollars involved and the fair and impartial jury selected.

“It doesn’t negate the fact that the prosecution failed to disclose discovery material,” he said.

Haffa, the 22-year-old from Cheektowaga, has remained incarcerated in the Chautauqua County Jail since September 2016. He’ll continue to be held as he awaits a new trial.