The wheels of justice grind on

In a remarkable turn of events, a state supreme court judge based in Albany has reversed a “no bail” ruling by an Ulster County judge on a state trooper indicted in the death of an 11-year-old Brooklyn girl  on the Thruway near Kingston almost a year ago.

After posting a $100,000 bond, trooper Christopher Baldner will be home for the holidays. Not so, the victim, Monica Goods, and therein lies the ultimate tragedy.

Ulster County Court judge Bryan Rounds, on the bench for less than 23 months, refused bail for the defendant during a two-hour hearing at the courthouse on Wall Street on Nov. 4.  Supreme Court Judge Denise Hartman, upon petition from defense attorneys, threw out that ruling on Friday afternoon in the Albany County courtroom. Baldner was released after his wife posted bail shortly afterward, subject to home confinement in Catskill and an ankle monitor.

For Rounds, 52, one of the county’s top defense lawyers after decades in practice, Hartman’s rebuke had to sting, especially if he has ambitions for higher judicial office.

Hartman’s ruling was no slap on the wrist in delivering not one but two serious rejections on how Rounds handled the Nov. 4 bail hearing.

In fairly strong language, she cited an “abuse of (judicial) discretion” and a “misapplication” of the legislature’s 2019 bail reform legislation. In plan English that means she believed Rounds exceeded his authority and implied that Rounds didn’t understand the provisions of the bail reform act which dictated “least restrictive” measures rather than the most restrictive, which means locking up a defendant.

At the heart of Hartman’s ruling was the bedrock principle that bail is not meant to punish but to assure that a defendant will appear in court to be tried.

Moreover, Rounds, Hartman wrote, based his bail decision “wholly on the seriousness of the crime.” Appellate courts have consistently ruled that “seriousness” of a crime cannot be a factor if the court is convinced the defendant is not a fight risk.

Rounds, who really didn’t get into why he thought Baldner might be a flight risk, based his decision on “consistency” in that he had denied bail in two other murder cases during his term. Hartman’s response to that was that the law requires “individual determination” (for bail) in all murder cases which she apparently felt lacking.

She apparently wasn’t buying we-always-did-it-that-way, as referenced by 19th century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson when he wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” adding, “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”

What now?

It is possible that Baldner’s defense team, angry, aggressive and aroused (like Monica’s supporters) and well-funded by his trooper PBA association, could ask for either a change of judge or of venue, citing what they may try to demonstrate as prejudicial rulings by Rounds. Which is to say, we may have not heard the last of Hartman’s ruling.

In a rather overt example of judge shopping, the defense snuck the case into Albany on a (dead zone) Friday afternoon, it’s clear the defense doesn’t want it heard in Kingston where the preponderance of public demonstration has been for Monica.  Maybe the prosecution, too. By law, they were notified in advance of what amounted to a secret hearing.

The bail hearing held by Rounds was just short of raucous with dozens of Monica supporters yelling “justice for Monica” on the courthouse lawn and sidewalk. The rising tide of protest led at one point to the judge declaring that the case would be heard in his courtroom, not outside it. That train left the station years ago.

NBA hall of famer Bill Russell’s observation about “mixed feelings” about this case comes to mind as I try to weigh and balance conflicting information in order to give readers the facts, they need to make their own decisions.

“Mixed feelings,” Russell said as a TV commentator, “Is like watching your mother-in law drive over a cliff….in your new Cadillac.”

For the record I loved my late mother-in-law and think of her often.

As to mixed feelings, I like Judge Rounds. A cool guy, he has it all, job security (eight years left on a 10-year term at north of $200,000 per annum), a beautiful wife, gorgeous kids, a great big car, funny, a real thigh slapper, a sensible Democrat.

I was taken aback when I read reporter Jesse Smith’s account of Judge Hartman’s decision in the increasingly popular The Wire, and more than a little miffed.

(Full disclosure: I worked with Jesse at Kingston Times for some ten years. I trust his work. The Wire runs my column twice a week.)

Upon reflection, I questioned why Rounds sent the trooper back to jail as an (apparent) flight risk while offering little rationale for the decisions.

Still, Rounds, our county judge, was being taken to task by some no-name Supreme Court judge from Albany? We have competent Supremes here.

Rounds is a highly confident guy, but I can’t imagine how anyone could take the kind of professional one-two Hartman administered without at least a touch of embarrassment. I wouldn’t have come out of the house for a month, even to rake leaves.

But we have to willingly suspend such personal feelings. A child is dead under questionable circumstances, a jury of our peers will determine the facts of the case. A career police officer has his freedom on the line.

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