Not Guilty: Jury acquits Haffa on three charges

Jury acquits Haffa on three charges, found guilty for lesser charge

OBSERVER Photo by Jimmy McCarthy Justin Haffa reacts to the jury’s verdict inside the Chautauqua County Courtroom on Wednesday.

MAYVILLE — A Chautauqua County jury acquitted Justin S. Haffa on counts of first-degree attempted murder, first-degree robbery and aggravated assault on a police officer following four hours of deliberation Wednesday.

However, the six men and six women on the jury found Haffa guilty of a lesser charge in third-degree robbery following the Sept. 11, 2016 incident in which he took the gun of Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Deputy Sara Cunningham during a tussle.

Sentencing is scheduled for April, and Haffa could get anywhere from two-and-a-third to seven years in prison.

Families on both sides exuded emotion as the verdicts were announced inside the courtroom. Haffa could be seen smiling as he won’t be spending 25 years or more inside a state prison with not guilty verdicts on the three major charges.

Chautauqua County Public Defender Ned Barone, who represented Haffa during the trial, expressed elation with the outcome. Since his arrest in September 2016, Barone said Haffa maintained his innocence and maintained he never tried to kill nor hurt the deputy.

“Certainly, we couldn’t be any happier with the outcome,” Barone said. “We were truly lucky to have 12 members of that jury who really were committed to listening to evidence.”

Overall, Barone said evidence lacked on the part of the District Attorney’s Office. In particular, Barone noted there were no medical records that corroborated an alleged choking or a knife used in the alleged attack. Nail clippings were taken from Haffa following the incident and sent for testing to see whether he had his hands on Cunningham’s throat. Results from that test were never acknowledged in court, however, to show whether Cunningham’s DNA was underneath his fingernails.

“There were certain things that this jury wasn’t able to see. I think that played a big part of it,” Barone said.

Through the third-degree robbery verdict, the jury concluded there was no forcible taking of property through the use of a dangerous instrument like a knife, which would have been first-degree robbery. Barone said he intends to file motions asking the court to set aside the robbery in the third-degree verdict since Haffa only took the gun after he was shot at twice.

Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson said he’s disappointed in the result between the work put forth in the case and what they believed happened on the morning of Sept. 11, 2016.

“We put in front of them all the proof that we were permitted to put in front of them,” Swanson said. “But the jurors did their job and that’s the way our system functions.”

Sheriff Joe Gerace, who testified at trial, said he was “extremely disappointed” in the verdict.

“I think it sends the wrong message about what kind of dangers that we face and what the outcome should have been,” Gerace said. “It’s been a difficult process for all of us here.”

In speaking to jurors after the verdict, Swanson said they felt there wasn’t a knife and would have needed to see it. No knife was recovered at the Route 60 scene in the town of Pomfret where Haffa allegedly attack Cunningham or on Putnam Road where Haffa was apprehended.

“Sometimes you don’t have enough to give them what they want,” he said.