HAFFA CASE: A stunning error at trial

Anyone who has watched “Law & Order” more than once likely knows of the Brady rule, which stipulates that a prosecutor must turn over all evidence that may exonerate a defendant to the defendant’s attorney.

That’s why it was so surprising earlier this week when a Brady rule violation left county Judge David Foley no choice but to declare a mistrial in the case of Justin Haffa, a 22-year-old from Cheektowaga, who is accused of first-degree attempted murder, first-degree robbery and aggravated assault on a police officer. Public Defender Ned Barone, Haffa’s attorney, hadn’t received a copy of a DNA report that was used by the county District Attorney’s office, led by Patrick Swanson, in its case against Haffa. It turns out the DNA report from the Erie County forensic lab found no DNA of a female on the male’s finger nails.

It is alleged that Haffa tried to choke the deputy. Having had prior access to the report would have changed Barone’s questioning, cross-examination and use of an expert witness to refute the DNA report.

The mistrial is unfortunate on many levels. A young man’s life continues to be lived in limbo in the Chautauqua County Jail, where Haffa has spent every day for a year and where he will remain until another trial begins. County taxpayers — who are being asked to pay more to fund the District Attorney’s office in 2018 — will now spend more money adjudicating Haffa’s case. And, in a case that has drawn attention for the last year, a fair and impartial jury has been wasted.

It’s all caused by a rookie mistake.

It is interesting that Christopher Belling spoke to the court about the violation. Belling was a longtime assistant district attorney in Erie County who has prosecuted many homicides and other high visibility cases. In 2007, Belling went to work for the New York Prosecutor’s Training Institute in Albany, where he served as its trial counsel and served as a consultant to the 62 district attorneys in New York state. He also served as special district attorney in Rensselaer, Greene and Saratoga counties as well as special counsel to the district attorneys of Orleans, Tioga, Chenango and St. Lawrence counties. In 2010, Belling returned to the Erie County District Attorney’s Office and was appointed senior trial counsel by then District Attorney Frank Sedita. In this role, Belling provided advice and counsel to all assistant district attorneys on trial matters.

One can only hope Belling’s presence in the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s office means such rookie mistakes will stop happening.


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