Two years after Glenn Kurtzrock was fired for egregious misconduct, no sign of accountability; lawsuit seeks public access to ongoing disciplinary proceedings
(New York, NY – May 22, 2019) Today, the Innocence Project filed a lawsuit in the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, seeking the unsealing of all disciplinary proceedings against former Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Glenn Kurtzrock. In May 2017, Kurtzrock was fired for egregious misconduct committed during a murder trial; to date, his misconduct has led to the dismissal of five separate murder charges against defendants he prosecuted.
Today’s petition, filed by the law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP on behalf of the Innocence Project, notes that two years since Kurtzrock’s removal from office, he is still a practicing criminal defense attorney with an active law license. Under a rarely-used provision of the disciplinary law, however, the Appellate Division has the authority to open the records of Kurtzrock’s disciplinary proceedings for “good cause.”
On May 9, 2017, the former homicide prosecutor was caught withholding exculpatory material from Messiah Booker, a man charged with first-degree murder who had maintained his innocence. Mr. Booker was arrested and spent more than 18 months in jail awaiting trial before his defense lawyer discovered that Mr. Kurtzrock had altered hundreds of pages of police records to remove a wealth of exculpatory information, including evidence pointing to another suspect he knew Mr. Booker’s lawyer had been investigating. The prosecutor had also removed the covers of two police notebooks to make it look like his altered versions of the documents were the originals.
Upon discovering Kurtzrock’s violation of Brady v. Maryland and New York law, then- Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota demanded Kurtzrock’s resignation and dismissed Booker’s murder charge mid-trial (allowing him to plead to a greatly reduced non-murder charge). The presiding judge called the case “a travesty of justice.” The District Attorney’s office proceeded to discover that three other defendants’ cases Kurtzrock was prosecuting (involving Booker’s co-defendants) were also tainted by misconduct, and dismissed those murder charges as well. The District Attorney’s Office launched an unprecedented review of all of Kurtzrock’s cases to see if any others were tainted by Brady violations.
If there were ever a case in which the public has a right to information about a lawyer’s disciplinary proceeding, this is it.
Subsequently, in February 2018, the District Attorney’s Office agreed to dismiss all charges against Shawn Lawrence – a wrongly convicted man who had already served six years behind bars for a murder he did not commit – after discovering that Kurtzrock had concealed a wealth of exculpatory evidence at Lawrence’s trial. The judge who dismissed the charges against Lawrence called Kurtzrock’s misconduct “stunning” as he ordered Lawrence set free. Lawrence’s case marked the fifth murder charged dismissed because of Kurtzrock’s illegal actions, and the District Attorney’s internal review of all of Kurtzrock’s cases is still ongoing.
Despite Kurtzrock’s actions, he has yet to be charged with a single crime. Furthermore, while the Grievance Committee of the Tenth Judicial District (which regulates lawyer’s in Kurtzrock’s jurisdiction) has reportedly been investigating Kurtzrock’s fitness to practice law, in the more than two years since his dismissal, he has yet to receive any public discipline. Instead, the proceedings have taken place in secret and the public has not been given any information about whether the Grievance Committee is even seeking to have Kurtzrock suspended or disbarred. However, if the Court grants the Innocence Project’s petition, it may unseal the records of any proceedings conducted to date, and permit public access to any future hearings.
How can it be that two years after these findings were made in open court, Mr. Kurtzrock is still practicing law?
“If there were ever a case in which the public has a right to information about a lawyer’s disciplinary proceeding, this is it,” said lead counsel Gregory Diskant, who is with the law firm Patterson Belknap and is also a former federal prosecutor. “Kurtzrock held a position of enormous trust and power, and the courts have already found that he repeatedly and intentionally violated the law. Yet two years later, he remains fully licensed to practice, and the public has no information as to whether the Grievance Committee is even seeking to discipline him.”
“It’s extremely rare for prosecutors to be fired for misconduct, and even more so for the courts and District Attorney to find that a prosecutor withheld evidence from five separate defendants charged with murder,” said Nina Morrison, an attorney at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “How can it be that two years after these findings were made in open court, Mr. Kurtzrock is still practicing law, and still advertises his experience as a ‘former homicide prosecutor’ to generate business?”
In its filing, the Innocence Project argues that the public has a strong interest in the full record of Kurtzrock’s misconduct, as well as understanding why the disciplinary process has dragged on for more than two years despite the earlier court findings. “To the extent that this case reveals deficiencies in the attorney discipline process in New York State, that’s information the public, the courts and the legislature should know, “ said Morrison. “The public has a right to an attorney discipline process that is transparent, efficient, and produces just results, especially for the most serious types of misconduct committed by lawyers who hold public office.”
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, official misconduct (by police and/or prosecutors) is a factor in approximately half of the nearly 2,200 exonerations across the country since 1989. Yet prosecutors can rarely be sued for misconduct, no matter how egregious. Numerous studies have shown that even where courts find that exculpatory evidence was withheld, the prosecutors involved rarely face professional discipline.