National News

Charges Dismissed Against District Attorney in Police Shooting Inquiry

Posted June 14, 2018 1:04 a.m. EDT

A Rensselaer County district attorney accused of lying to a grand jury after an investigation into his handling of a 2016 shooting of an unarmed black man in upstate New York had his criminal case dismissed this week by a state judge.

The district attorney, Joel Abelove, was indicted in December by the state attorney general at the time, Eric Schneiderman, on a single felony count of perjury and two misdemeanor counts of official misconduct. The charges arose from the investigation into the death of Edson Thevenin, who was shot eight times and killed by a police sergeant during an April 2016 traffic stop in Troy, New York.

After the shooting, Abelove, a Republican, quickly convened a grand jury, something that the attorney general’s office believed was meant to ensure that the officer, Sgt. Randall French, did not get charged in the killing. Abelove had also conferred immunity on French before the grand jury voted, Schneiderman’s office said, and was alleged to have lied to a separate grand jury about another immunity case.

Prosecutions of county prosecutors by a state attorney general are rare. But Schneiderman, a Democrat who resigned in disgrace last month after allegations that he had physically abused romantic partners, was empowered to investigate Abelove under a 2015 executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The order allowed the state attorney general to serve as a special prosecutor for investigations into the deaths of “unarmed civilians caused by law enforcement officers.”

In the case of Thevenin, Cuomo issued a second executive order that allowed Schneiderman to specifically examine Abelove’s handling of the investigation, including “its grand jury presentation.”

But in a complicated 10-page decision signed Monday, Justice Jonathan Nichols questioned the scope of the authority included in the Thevenin executive order and ruled that the attorney general’s office “was without jurisdiction and hence unauthorized to appear in front of the grand jury,” in relation to the perjury charge.

“The court finds the integrity of the grand jury was impaired in this case,” Nichols wrote. “And impaired to the extent that prejudice to the defendant is clearly possible.”

The decision to dismiss was hailed by Abelove, who never stepped down as district attorney and suggested in an interview Wednesday that Schneiderman’s prosecution was politically motivated. He criticized Cuomo’s 2015 order as an “unnecessary and unprecedented” example of executive overreach.

“Never in the history of the state has a governor pre-empted every single district attorney in a category of cases that haven’t ripened yet,” Abelove said about investigations of police-related shootings. He also questioned the logic of the original order, saying that its mandate to look into only the deaths of civilians raised other questions.

“How is that I can’t be trusted to handle that case,” he posited, “but if a police officer only cripples an unarmed civilian, I would be trusted?”

Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, said the executive order granting the attorney general’s office power to investigate police-involved deaths “is not only clear and enforceable but has been successfully implemented throughout the state.”

He added that Nichols’ decision was “focused upon the authority of the attorney general to pursue perjury charges against Mr. Abelove for allegedly lying to a grand jury. We are reviewing the decision and will be discussing the next steps with the attorney general’s office.”

Thevenin, 37, was shot after a brief chase involving a traffic stop for suspicion of drunken driving. The encounter ended with French shooting Thevenin after the officer became pinned between his cruiser and Thevenin’s vehicle.

Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for Barbara Underwood, the state’s new attorney general, said her office was “determining how best to move this critical case forward.”

“Our indictment detailed a disturbing pattern of misconduct that violated the law and undermined a criminal investigation,” Spitalnick said. “We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision.”