Justice is blind

In the criminal justice system….

Most of us crime and punishment buffs are familiar with that lead-in for the long-running Law and Order TV show. In less than an hour alleged crimes are committed, investigated.

People are accused and indicted, prosecutors and defense attorneys battle in court and juries render decisions. Sometimes deals are cut with defendants. Sometimes defendants are led away in handcuffs. Sometimes there are acquittals.

In Ulster County, we are at the early stages of a criminal trial – absent a plea deal – where a state trooper has been accused of second-degree murder and criminal use of a deadly weapon (his patrol car) vehicular death of 11-year-old Monica Goods on the Thruway near Kingston last Dec. 22.

Under bail reform laws enacted last year the state attorney general takes jurisdiction in cases involving police officers in fatalities.  AG Letitia James took the case on Dec. 28. An Ulster County grand jury, based on evidence assembled by the AG’s office, indicted state trooper Christopher Baldner of Greene County, a 19-year veteran of the force, last week. The case will be heard by Ulster County Judge Brian Rounds in county court, probably after the first of the year. Baldner is expected to plead not guilty and request bail at a hearing before the judge this month. He’ll be in jail pending that decision, maybe until trial. In due time a jury will be seated from among hundreds of residents called from a jury pool of residents.

What we know of the circumstances surrounding this case have come mainly from initial police reports of the fatal accident and the indictment handed up by the grand jury. The trooper stands accused of pepper-spraying the Goods vehicle which he had stopped for alleged speeding. Seemingly, an argument broke out between him and the girl’s father, Tristin Goods of Brooklyn.  Another child and a female adult were in the car. Tristin, feeling threatened, he said, then drove off with the trooper giving chase. The grand jury indictment said the trooper rear-ended the Goods vehicle three times before the driver lost control, hit a guardrail and flipped over. Monica, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected and killed.

While an active, vocal “Justice for Monica” movement has emerged, with intense media coverage, little has been heard from the trooper’s side. This is not unusual. Prosecutors almost always get first crack at public opinion and almost always get convictions, either through plea bargains or at trial.

Trials are held to present facts. Each side has the opportunity to state its case and to challenge facts or statements presented by the other side. The burden of proof is on the prosecution. A jury then decides whether there is “reasonable doubt” in the prosecution’s case.

We are not at that stage. An indictment by a grand jury – where the prosecution presents its case in the absence of the defense – is serious on its face, but it is an accusation, nothing more. Conviction can only come at trial (or by plea) where both sides can present their cases.

We are not there yet. And yet hard lines are forming. Some find the trooper guilty; he is also accused for using similar tactics after a traffic stop in two another incidents, a sobering thought. Some elements view this as a “political trial.” We live in racially tense times: The trooper is white. The victim was black. The death of a child under any circumstances is rife with emotion.

It is too perverse to even speculate that James, who announced her candidacy for governor shortly after her long-delayed indictment of the trooper, would stoop to using this case for political purposes. Others might, however.

We are all free to speculate, demonstrate and take sides on what could be a trial of national significance, but let us appeal to our better angels. We as a community are also on trial.

                                                                                                ***

DEATH OF THE RAJAH – Ulster Republican Party chairman Roger Rascoe, 69, died of a heart attack at his upstate fishing camp, only days before the 2021 local elections.

While we express condolences to the family and friends of the man I liked to call Rajah, Tuesday’s results would have only produced more remorse for the downtrodden political party he led since 2010.

Rascoe, who was active on the town level in solidly Republican Shawangunk, was in for a rude surprise when he moved up to county politics. Democrats were on the rise and it kept coming. This year, the only Republican on the county-wide ticket is five-term county clerk Nina Postupack, so popular that she was cross-endorsed by Democrats. Some of that fell on the chairman, whose fundamental duties are to recruit and fund candidates.

Rascoe took the slings and arrows of politics with barrels of salt, knowing that a party chairman, like a football quarterback, is never as good as when he’s winning or as bad when losing.

First vice party chairman Kevin Costello will by party rule fill in for his best friend until its executive committee can select a successor. Unless there’s a sudden groundswell to “win one for the Rajah,” it won’t matter tomorrow night.

Meanwhile, I’m happy to report that radio mate Mario Catalano, the last successful Republican chairman (pre-Roger), will probably not be a candidate for his old job. Whew.

Imagine Me and Kevin or Me and Pat or Me and Michelle on the radio together every other Friday?

.