The Bigger Picture for March 8, 2016

After five years in the court system, the case involving Aisha (Gomas) McCoy and a subsequent civil lawsuit against the city of Geneva for police brutality has reached a resolution of sorts.

Close to 200 law enforcement leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., recently to review new guidelines being considered for enactment by roughly 18,000 agencies nationwide.

This meeting was a direct result of how the use of force during questionable shootings and violent arrests the past few years has caused outrage in many communities nationwide.

I am happy to say that our local police force in Geneva is ahead of the curve. They already have undergone sensitivity training and put new procedures and leadership in place.

The culture surrounding local police enforcement has indeed changed since the middle of 2011. Those efforts were acknowledged with a special award at the Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner earlier this year when the GPD was honored for its diligent service to the community.

The chamber noted the department had increased its foot patrols in 2015 and continues to play an integral role in Geneva.

“Our officers are quicker with a smile than ammunition,” city Manager Matt Horn said in praising officers. “They understand it’s not necessary to use a traffic ticket or handcuffs when a conversation will do.”

The rosy picture Horn described has not always been the case.

I bring this up because, after five years in the court system, the case involving Aisha McCoy and a subsequent civil lawsuit against the city of Geneva for police brutality has reached a resolution of sorts.

In my 30-plus years in this business, following her case was one of the most influential in opening my eyes to issues of social justice.

It should be noted that a handful of other police brutality cases have been brought against the city — all of them occurring in 2011 or earlier.

For me, Aisha’s case exposed cracks in local law enforcement and the judicial system.

Aisha and her attorney, Nelson Torre, are not permitted to discuss any details about the settlement per the agreement. However, I obtained information about the case, which is now part of public record, after it was filed in federal District Court Jan. 26.

A brief recap of the initial incident that occurred Nov. 13, 2010, goes as follows (it’s taken from the press release the GPD submitted to the Times): “A person was charged with second-degree possession of a weapon, and his girlfriend (Aisha) was charged with endangering the welfare of a child, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.”

Aisha has maintained her innocence from day one, refusing any and all plea deals that were offered.

One would think a criminal trial in which someone — Aisha, in this case — was found guilty after the jury deliberated for less than 15 minutes is clear cut. That is simply not the case here, as Aisha’s civil lawsuit settlement indicates.

Though her success in a civil matter does not result in her conviction being overturned, perhaps the retelling of her story will allow readers to decide for themselves whether she received a fair trial or not.

The best way to do that is by highlighting some issues and behaviors on both sides that had many observing this trial shaking their heads. To do this, I’m separating things into Group 1 and Group 2. The people in Group 2, in my opinion, were favorable to her case, while those in Group 1 were not.

GROUP 1

GPD: When Aisha was arrested and booked in 2010, no one asked for her full name. It was written down as Aisha McCoy — and she has been identified as such throughout the entire legal process.

Aisha’s name is actually Aisha Gomas; I have seen her birth certificate. She guesses the confusion may be a result of some of her relatives being married to McCoys.

In addition, Aisha was labeled as “black.” She is part Brazilian, part Puerto Rican and part caucasian.

Sgt. Carmen Reale: At trial he admitted chasing down and punching Aisha after she was told to leave the scene. As Aisha walked while holding her 2-year-old son, talking on the phone to her father, Reale hopped on his police bike, chased and tackled her from behind. He began punching her, resulting in a broken eye socket.

Reale, who injured his hand, claimed Aisha used her child as a “shield.” A witness testifed that Aisha’s child was thrown from her arms and picked up by a passerby.

Essentially, the charges against Aisha boiled down to her interaction with Reale.

Assigned Counsel No. 1: Scott Falvey initially represented Aisha and repeatedly tried to convince her to plead guilty. She refused to do so. The case languished until Falvey handed it off to new counsel.

Assigned Counsel No. 2: Robert Tucker took over and came into court — from my vantage point, at least — unprepared. He spent little time with Aisha and apparently never met the case’s key witnesses in person. He had opportunities to file motions, offer important objections and cross-examine witnesses — but rarely did. For example, he failed to file a motion to dismiss the charge either on speedy trial grounds or in the interests of justice.

It took 27 months for a trial involving three misdemeanors to happen.

Assistant District Attorney Jason MacBride: Unlike other attorneys, prosecutors take a special oath. They aren’t supposed to zealously advocate for one side or another; rather, their role is to ensure that justice prevails.

MacBride, in trying to impeach the defense’s key witness, accused her of being convicted of driving while intoxicated. Such an incident never happened.

In addition, he asked the witness about a case from years ago that had been dismissed and sealed; thus, it was not fair game to bring it up in court.

To discredit Aisha, MacBride shouted the “f” word close to a dozen times to illustrate how he thought she was inciting a riot. None of the police officers characterized her behavior as such.

A witness corroborated that Aisha never cursed. Aisha is a born-again Christian. The “f” word is not a part of her vernacular.

There are limitations to what a prosecutor can do, and two of the most important are not presenting a mischaracterization of or misrepresenting the facts to the jury. Because he alleged what he did, MacBride was supposed to provide documentation to support his assertions, then have the court enter it into the record. He did not.

There is no gray area here. You simply are not allowed to do certain things.

Judge Toole: On Feb. 7, 2013, Aisha’s third attorney, Nelson Torre, presented arguments for three motions requesting the verdict be dismissed. One claimed prosecutorial misconduct against MacBride; a second noted that Aisha did not receive her due process for a speedy trial; and the third pointed to Aisha’s previously ineffective counsel.

Torre also provided information from a subpoenaed member of the jury who alleged there was juror misconduct. In a country where a fair and honest jury system is what sets us apart from so many others, any hint of juror misconduct should be thoroughly investigated. It wasn’t.

Later, by way of mail, Toole rejected all of Torre’s motions to dismiss the case.

GROUP 2

Aisha (Gomas) McCoy: At the time she was holding down two jobs to support her family and did not have a criminal record. She resisted all plea offers. Throughout the process she often told me she was leaving it in God’s hands.

Assistant District Attorney Bill Hart: He was the original prosecutor in the case who initially offered Aisha an extremely fair deal — plead to an ACD, or adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.

Aisha declined.

Hart’s peers and friends are well aware of his integrity. Looking back, and given the direction the prosecution wound up taking, it should come as no surprise that Hart handed the case off to another ADA.

Officer Randy Grenier: Though the officers on the scene presented conflicting accounts, Grenier’s was closest to what the defense thought occurred — in particular, Reale’s pursuit of Aisha.

Michelle Pollino: She was the defense’s key witness, someone who saw everything unfold while she was taking a cigarette break from her job.

Despite having nothing to gain by coming forward, Pollino did just that. Not only was she shocked and appalled at what she saw, she filed her own complaint the same day over the way police treated Aisha.

Pollino waffled on whether to come forward or not. After what happened in court, suffice it to say it was an experience she’d rather forget.

Nelson Torre: A victims’ rights attorney from Buffalo who teaches at the University at Buffalo, he is an expert in trial law and procedure. Torre handled Aisha’s successful civil lawsuit against the city, and continues to work on getting her conviction overturned.

Anonymous juror: This was simply a person trying to do the right thing by reporting alleged misconduct by two of his fellow jurors.

IN CONCLUSION

To put things in perspective, former Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks’ husband was convicted of a felony recently related to bid-rigging for contracts. He received no jail time.

For three misdemeanors, Aisha was sentenced to eight weekends in jail — 16 days in all — and ordered to wear an ankle monitor.

It’s unclear what impact the success of her civil lawsuit will have on Aisha’s life. She has been living in poverty, unable to hold down a job due to lupus, diabetes, vision issues created by her damaged eye socket and other ailments. She has relocated to the Buffalo area to try and start anew.

Aisha continues to be upbeat and possesses a strong faith in God, as shown by this recent Facebook post: “Thank you Lord for this day for waking me up and giving me life you are awesome. Everyone have a blessed day and remember Jesus loves you.”

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