MANHATTAN (CN) – The 2nd Circuit vacated the conviction and 60-month prison sentence of a former Rockland cop accused of stalking his ex-wife, finding that prosecutors erred in submitting testimony of prior abuse and evidence that suggested he was planning a murder-suicide.
While James Curley was an officer with the Ramapo, N.Y., police in May 2008, a mechanic called the cops because he found a GPS tracking device on the car belong to Curley’s ex-wife, Linda. Curley – who was on paid disability with the police department for 19 years stemming from an ankle injury, according to media reports – acted suspiciously at the mechanic’s shop, lied about his identity and tried to alter the mechanic’s notes.
Investigators learned that a friend of Curley’s tracked Linda through the GPS online, then forwarded her movements to Curley. Someone accessed the tracking website more than 200 times from August to September of 2006.
Authorities also uncovered Curley’s long history of abusing Linda, which led to divorce proceedings in 2006. After 12 years of marriage, in June 2006, Curley threatened to kill Linda on three separate occasions and even told her at one point that he had “found a place today where I could kill you and nobody would hear you scream,” according to the ruling.
The Rockland County Family Court gave Linda custody of the couple’s children and a restraining order against Curley after she showed in divorce proceedings that Curley had repeatedly followed her around in his truck.
Federal prosecutors indicted Curley in May 2008 for two counts of interstate stalking of his ex-wife and one count of interstate violation of a protection order. A jury convicted Curley the following year, and the District Court sentenced him in July 2009.
In vacating Curley’s conviction on Monday, the federal appeals court found that the trial should not have included evidence that was unrelated to the charges. Linda told jurors about Curley’s past abuse, including pushing her into a door while she was pregnant in 2001 and another violent shove in 1991. She also testified that Curley’s brother, Michael, had beat her in 1990.
The court also heard evidence about an unrelated traffic stop during which Curley was arrested after driving a rental car that had been reported stolen. The police later found that Curley was driving with three rifles, ammunition, a bulletproof vest and a handwritten “will and testament” stating his intentions for the children if he and Linda died. Prosecutors argued that this evidence showed he planned to kill Linda and then himself.
The appeals court ruled that evidence of Linda’s past abuse was relevant to the case, but that allowing Linda to testify and including the traffic-stop incident abused the court’s power. The District Court had ruled that allowing this evidence to be heard “added significantly to the probative value” of the case, but the 2nd Circuit noted that “District Courts should not presume that such evidence is relevant or admissible.”
The appeal panel agreed that the past abuse “demonstrated a pattern of activity that was probative of Curley’s intent and Linda’s reasonable fear,” but erred in allowing Linda to testify at the trial, saying the abuse “was not sufficiently similar to the charged crimes to allow the jury to reasonably infer Linda’s fear” and that Curley’s activates “did not parallel any of the underlying conduct.”
Prosecutors also cannot establish that the traffic-stop evidence indicated Curley was targeting or threatening Linda, according to the ruling. The judges also added that the handwritten will was not dated. As such, their inclusion created “a high risk that the evidence of Michael’s conduct would unfairly prejudice Curley” in the eyes of a jury, Judge Denny Chin wrote for the court’s three-judge panel.
Curley’s lawyer, Eric Jaso, told The Journal News that he is not sure whether the federal government will decide to appeal the new ruling or retry his client, who is still in prison. Curley also faces charges in New Jersey for similar charges of stalking Linda.