New Yorker Who Beat Arson Charges Takes on Prosecutors

     BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – By the grace of court-ordered subpoenas, a New Yorker was able to escape bogus arson charges brought as part of a massive cover-up, he claims in Federal Court.
     The suit filed Tuesday takes aim Michael Vecchione, who up until last year served as a senior assistant district attorney in Brooklyn and head of its Rackets Bureau.
     In 44 pages, Samuel Martinez paints a picture of a corrupt and freewheeling DA’s office in Brooklyn under Vecchione’s boss, former District Attorney Charles Hynes.
     “Prosecutors were permitted and even encouraged to make a record of statements that tended to inculpate a suspect or defendant, while ignoring statements that were inconsistent with or adverse to their belief as to a person’s guilt,” the lawsuit states.
     Vecchione retired in late 2013. After Hynes lost his re-election bid, his replacement, Kenneth Thompson, was sworn in last year and quickly being freeing wrongly convicted individuals.     
     A spokesman for the city’s law department declined to comment on the lawsuit, except to say, “We’ll sort out the facts in court.”
     Vecchione could not be reached for comment.
     Martinez says he was serving time at Otisville Correctional Facility for attempted burglary in 2012 when prosecutors tried to make him take the fall for a fatal 2006 arson at a four-story apartment building in Prospect Heights.
     Along with one woman who plunged to her death, a mother and two children, ages 4 and 1, died in the blaze. Media reports said other residents of the building threw their children out of windows to avoid the fire.
     Martinez says Vecchione tried to gloss over the long-awaited indictment by telling news outlets that Martinez knew things about the case “only the arsonist would know,” including how the fire was started.
     Though the prosecutor tried to keep Martinez’s defense team in the dark as to the identities of his two informants, Martinez allegedly finally obtained their files through court-ordered subpoenas.
     These records revealed that the DA had built his case in part on the word of a paranoid schizophrenic serving 15 years to life, according to the complaint.
     Martinez says he was eyeing his release from Otisville Correctional Facility when ADA John Holmes and Detective John O’Dwyer had their informant begin spying on him.
     The New York Daily News reported that the informant was cooperating with authorities for “potato chips and toilet paper.”
     Martinez says the informant “created a series of fictitious statements” and attributed them to Martinez, but “none of these alleged admissions by plaintiff mentioned arson, or even simply a fire.”
     That informant later wrote letters from prison in which he claimed that he and the judge in Martinez’s case had gone on a crime spree around the city.
     Martinez says the DA’s other informant was an unreliable drug user living in the neighborhood at the time of the fire. This man was serving time at a federal detention center in Brooklyn in December 2011 when ADA Holmes found him and had him commit to helping with the old arson case.
     Police reportedly rebuffed Martinez’s requests to take a polygraph test, and investigators failed to connect the 2006 arson to others in nearby neighborhoods because they contradicted the theory that Martinez torched the Prospect Heights building for revenge against a drug-dealing resident.
     After the details regarding the informants emerged, the judge presiding over Martinez’s case reduced his bail. He dismissed all charges against him in May 2014.
     Vecchione has a history of controversial tactics, and several other individuals have accused him of prosecutorial misconduct. Last year New York Supreme Court Justice ShawnDya Simpson overturned a murder conviction because the Vecchione had first represented the accused, Antwone Dennis, as a defense attorney and then helped prosecute him years later when he joined the prosecutor’s office.
     Another lawsuit accused Vecchione of sweeping witness contradictions and recantations under the rug in a murder conviction. The lawsuit , filed by Jabbar Collins, who was convicted for the 1995 killing but released 15 years later, sought $150 million in damages.
     The suit also alleged Vecchione, who made his name prosecuting racketeering and mafia crimes, used physical threats to coerce testimony, a charge others have lobbed at the former prosecutor. Collins was awarded $13 million in damages last year.
     Thompson, a Democrat and the first black prosecutor to control the Kings County District Attorney’s Office, has spearheaded a move to investigate at least 100 potentially bogus convictions from the ’80s and ’90s, mostly against black men, through his Conviction Review Unit.
     As of this April, the unit has led to the release of 13 men wrongly convicted of murders and who spent a combined 232 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
     Martinez references the culture of corruption at the Brooklyn’s DA office before Thompson took office.
     “Despite ample evidence of Vecchione’s practice of ignoring his constitutional obligations and otherwise engaging in or abetting prosecutorial misconduct, Hynes continued to promote Vecchione within the [King’s County District Attorney], thereby signaling his endorsement of such conduct,” the lawsuit states.
     Martinez’s lawyer, Robert Marinelli, did not immediately return a call for comment.
     Representatives for the Kings County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the allegations or the status of the 1996 arson investigation. That case has not included any other arrests.