The Interview: Onondaga County DA William Fitzpatrick with Ken Jackson Urban CNY

Fitzpatrick refutes charges of racism by democratic opponent, in wide-ranging interview

After Democratic Party candidate for District Attorney, Chuck Keller accused Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick of racism; Democratic Party Candidate for District Attorney Chuck Keller Accuses Onondaga County D.A. William Fitzpatrick of Racism

Urban CNY’s Ken Jackson sat down for an exclusive interview with the DA.  The concept is simple, let him explain in his own words the result is the interview conducted Friday August 2nd in his 4th floor office in the Criminal Courthouse located at  505 South State Street, Syracuse.

Urban CNY: Why are you running for re-election

Fitzpatrick: I’m running because I love the people of Syracuse, I love the people of Onondaga County. It’s in my DNA. My dad was a New York City police officer. I love law enforcement. It’s a way to give back and to really make sure people are safe as much as I can.

The saddest moments in my life are when I’m sitting in a room with people that have just lost a loved one, you can’t imaging the pressure of them looking at you and saying ‘we need justice in this case, we need you to make this right’.

As I’m sitting here talking to you, in my mind I’m seeing the 3 families that were devastated by Anthony Saccone. Here on my Jukebox I have a picture of one young man, Michael Williams; literally the antithesis of Anthony Saccone, educated, making something of himself, working late at night just happened to be driving by when this maniac and his missile came by and killed him.”

Urban CNY: What is the most common misconception about the District Attorney’s Office?

Fitzpatrick: That you’re a tough as nails prosecutor, that you want to lock people up. That you relish throwing low level offenders in jail or prison.

The reality of it is since the day I took office 28 years ago, I look for what I would call a holistic approach, why did this person commit a crime?  Well, if it’s a crime of violence; a murder, a rape, armed robbery where somebody’s injured, I’m not very much interested in motive, that person needs to be separated from society.

But what if it’s a 16 or 17-year-old who has committed a petty larceny, that’s very, very annoying to a storekeeper, it costs him or her money, increased security, disruption of business.  But at the same time, why did the kid do it? Does the kid have a drug problem? Are the kid’s parents going through a divorce, does the kid even have parents that are looking out for him, is the kid impoverished. Is the person stealing cigarettes or is the person stealing diapers for their baby? If you take that approach, let’s look at this, and let’s try to make sure that we can get this person out of the system, not just for this one case but for good.

That’s been my philosophy my entire prosecutorial life. So, that’s why we have different courts, we have Community Court, we have Drug Court, we just recently started Opioid Court. We got a court for Veteran’s, we send these kids over to these foreign lands, they might have grown up on a farm or in Syracuse and now they’re watching their friends get blown up in front of them, and we send them back to America and we expect everything to honky-dory and normal, and it’s not. We don’t have a high population of Veterans committing crimes. But when they do and it’s related to their service, we want to give them an opportunity to get healthy, to get better.

Domestic Violence Court and Mental Health Court which we just started; that’s the scourge of the system and it’s a national disgrace. The way we don’t deal with the Mentally ill. Because there’s that stigma attached to it. You break your arm; you go to an orthopedic surgeon nobody thinks the worst of it.

But if you have of chemical imbalance in your brain or you have some type of lesion or defect or organic or chemical problem, we come up with pejorative terms like, oh he’s nuts or he’s looney tunes or we circle our finger by our ear….that’s gotta stop, the brain is part of the body and if it’s malfunctioning and if we can fix it, we otta do that.

Urban CNY: There’s an HBO special that’s quite explosive in their allegations, what’s your response?

Fitzpatrick: I really don’t have a response, I lived it. I believe then and I believe now, that the soccer coach killed the kid. Because of him being Jamaican and one of the few people of color in Potsdam, it created a narrative in some people’s mind that this was strictly about race. Was race an element in it, yes absolutely. There was a very very important witness that put him very close to the scene at the time of the murder. And I made a very difficult decision not to call him as a witness, he was white, when we examined his social media, he had made slurs in his social media postings.

The killer who ever he was, jumped out of a second-floor window, one of the reasons the defendant became a suspect was that he had an injured ankle the next day and lied about how he got it. So, that was kind of an important piece of evidence. The witness who was just below the window, working on his car, according to his initial affidavit saw some movement by the window.

When I was preparing him for trial he says, ‘it was a black male I saw at the window’, that’s just not true, that can’t be true. I needed him to establish a timeline, but I gave him very specific instructions ‘you are not to testify to that’ . I told the three-defense counsel, I told them about that I said, ‘do not go into cross-examination with this guy about that, or he’s gonna blurt this out and ethically, I can’t allow that’.

My opponent is now saying that I withheld evidence in that case. That’s a blatant lie. The judge knows that, the three lawyers know that.  I consider them men of honor, they did their job, we shook hands after the verdict. We have very disparate views of the case and they’ve never once accused me of withholding anything. In fact, I very seriously considered resigning in the middle of the trial, when I found out the elected DA had withheld information from the defense. The point is that she didn’t fulfill her obligations.

Urban CNY: You were recently on a radio talk show and made comments about the Central Park Five, your opponent has used this as a political weapon and has called your comments “racist”. What’s your response?   

Fitzpatrick: To put it in context, the radio host Gomez, was talking about the case we were just talking about. The point I was trying to make, was that on occasion in Hollywood the producers will take dramatic license and have a pre-existing narrative.  The first case I believe I mentioned, was Stephen Avery: Making of a Murderer, which became very popular on Netflix. There’s substantial evidence against Stephen Avery that he’s in fact guilty, that was not disclosed in the Netflix documentary. And Stephan Avery is white and that’s why my opponent hasn’t mentioned that that’s how I started my answer.

I also gave several examples, one of them being the Central Park Five. For those not familiar with the case; it was April 1989, about 40 African American and Hispanic, mostly teenagers entered Central Park probably around 105th Street by 5th Avenue and began doing something that up until that point didn’t have a name. Now has a name, it’s called ‘wilding” and there were 10 people assaulted in Central Park that day, by various members of this group and not everybody in the group was affiliated with each other.

The most seriously injured person was this 29-year-old white woman jogger, who literally was left for dead, down a culvert covered with grass and dirt and her clothes had been ripped, she had very little memory of her attack. You can imagine 1989, it’s an election year, in the city of New York I think it was David Dinkins running. Ed Koch was the incumbent. So, you can imagine the pressure on NYPD to solve this case. They eventually arrested 5 young men and all five confessed on videotape with relatives or family members present, to not only assaulting individuals, but also participating in the rape of this woman.  Elizabeth Lederer was the prosecutor in the case, there was a huge two month hearing to try to get the confessions thrown out, the judge rejected that in a very detailed decision. So, they went to trial. During the opening statement, the prosecutor pointed out that someone else’s DNA other than these five defendants was on the joggers body. She said, ‘We tried to identify that person, we can’t’.

They went to trial, they were all convicted, not only of raping the jogger, but of assaulting at least two other individuals. Interestingly enough, something that they’ve never denied. One of them at a recent parole hearing said, ‘Yeah look, I beat up the guy but I didn’t rape the jogger’. So, in 2002 a guy named by the name of Matias comes forward, a vary very bad guy serving a life sentence on murder, and says, I am the Central Park Rapist. He first went to the Innocence Project, and for whatever reason, they didn’t do anything with it. He then went to Bob Morgenthau who is a very dear friend of mine, who just recently passed away, a legendary DA in Manhattan.  What Barry Scheck, noted defense lawyer has called ‘his finest hour’, Bob reinvestigated the case. And at the end of the day, his conclusion was ‘I probably wouldn’t get a conviction because Matias claims he did it alone, of course he’s not facing any consequences because he’s doing a life sentence ,and the statute of limitations had run.

Rightfully or wrongfully, that was the decision that Bob made and I respect Him. There were a number of things that pointed to the five peoples involvement in the rape, However, one of the kids sister came forward to police and said, ‘ I just talked to my brother he didn’t rape her he just held her legs down while the other guy did’. She’s naive, she doesn’t realize that under section 20, that makes him guilty of the rape; In fact, that’s what he was convicted of.

But for his reasons, Bob said, ‘Look, they’ve all served over a decade in jail, the case is a mess and I’m not going to re-try it’. So, he consented to their convictions being vacated. They then sued the city of New York, and I think in a political decision Mayor DeBlasio ordered his Corporation Counsel to give them 41 million dollars. I can think of a lot of ways 41 million dollars could have been spent in New York City other than giving it to these 5 young men.

The only thing I said on the radio was basically a reader’s digest version of what I’ve just told you. Did they participate in the rape? Well, a jury said they did, they said they did, some of their relatives say they did. Could you get a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt? Bob Morgenthau said no, I respect Bob Morgenthau. And that’s my opinion on the case. Especially since I mentioned Steven Avery first, I don’t see how that translates into racism, but that’s a charge to throw around.

Urban CNY: You’ve mentioned tossing out convictions for certain Marijuana crimes, could you elaborate?

Fitzpatrick: We’re clearly on a path to legalization in New York, I’m not a big fan of it. And really has to do with timing, we’re going to lose 60,000 people or more to opioid addiction. That’s another topic for you and I to discuss someday, the evils of the pharmaceutical companies it’s a disgrace that we’ve allowed it to happen. But we’re turning into a nation of addicts, we’re 5% of the world’s population and we consume about 80-85% of the world’s opioids.  I’m just concerned about the timing.

Now, I’m not a chicken little, the world’s not gonna come to an end. We’re not gonna see stoned zombies wandering the streets stealing Twinkies from grocery stores. We’re gonna survive. We’ are gonna see some social malaise happen in the sense that people will now be spending money on marijuana that should be spending money on their kids.

There will be traffic accidents, people will point the finger.  The difficulty for me as a prosecutor, how do I prove when THC stays in your system for maybe up to a month. How do I prove that at the time of the accident the individual is under the influence of marijuana, unless he or she says, ‘yeah, I just smoked a joint and now I just crashed my car’.

So, I thought just as a matter of fairness, we don’t convict a lot of people on marijuana anyway, if we do it’s usually in relation to another charge.

There’s no evidence that minority people smoke marijuana at a higher rate than white people, in fact I’ve seen some data that suggests just the opposite, that more whites smoke marijuana than minorities do.  And yet, in terms of arrests and convictions there’s a great disparity, it’s black and brown people.

How does that affect them, some of them can’t get into Public Housing, some of them have ignored all charges they can’t get a driver’s license, some of them can’t get on Public Assistance. “Oh, you’re a drug dealer’ are you kidding me?

One of the really insidious things, that I think is you can be rejected from applying to the Police Academy, because you have a marijuana conviction. Now, we’ve got three out of our last 4 Presidents, (that we know of) have all admitted to smoking marijuana at various degrees in their lives. And they carried the nuclear football with them. But we can’t have a kid who’s turned his life around, if it ever needed his life turned around, it was marijuana, it’s not like the kid was caught with 10 pounds of Fentanyl, and you can’t be a cop.

Well that’s crazy, I want that guy, nobody’s gonna BS him on the street and nobody’s gonna get the drop on him, he or she’s gonna be a good cop. What’s the fairest way to do this?  I started this fight six or seven months ago, so we’re just shy of 9,000 motions pending. Not all of the people are going to be contacted, because some of them may be dead, some of them may have moved to other states, some of them might not even care. And some of them have other charges, we’re not vacating those charges, you have robbery in the first degree and you also have 2 ounces of pot, we’ll get rid of the pot conviction but you’re still a convicted robber.

Urban CNY: What would you say to voters heading into what would be your 8th Term?

Fitzpatrick: You have my full commitment; I think every day whether I’m on duty or at home with my kids and wife and dogs. Every day, I think about making your life better, I want you to be safer, I want you to be able to walk down the street on nice summer night and listen to music, and maybe tune up a barbeque and hang with your friends and have conversations. I don’t want you to have to listen to the pop-pop-pop of gunfire. And I don’t want you to have to see somebody trying to get your 10-year-old child to carry drugs for them because the kids a juvenile. I don’t want you to have to see women who are trafficked and selling their body’s on the corner in front of your children, when you’re trying to enjoy a summer night. I want you to enjoy the fruits of a great diverse city, I say that from the fields of Fabius, to the great structures in Cicero and everywhere in between, I love this job and I’d like to do it for 4 more years, with your vote.