V. Grand Jury Prep

Tom Moran decided to present the case against Sephora to a Grand Jury seeking an indictment on the robbery and kidnapping charges in an effort to pressure her into accepting the plea deal that he had offered her previously.  He sent the mandatory notice that the matter would be presented to a Livingston County Grand Jury on October 6, 2004.  My office had a conversation with him in which we indicated that Sephora planned on testifying.  Moran’s response was characteristically belligerent:  “Make my day.”  He was channeling Clint Eastwood.

Around September of 2004 I began the process of trying to get Sephora ready to testify before the Grand Jury.  This was a tall order.  We were going to have to nail down a lot more details about what had happened, who was involved, and when.  It had been nine months since the actual events at issue, so that – her memory of the events – was one problem.  Another was that Sephora was behaviorally very difficult.  She did not like discussing the matter and frequently told me she “did not want to talk about it.”  She would miss appointments.  She accused me of being interested only in money because I had hit her parents up for $30,000, which seemed to her like a lot of money.

Still, I made some progress.  Between Sephora and her sister, who was less difficult, a number of witnesses were identified and I interviewed them.  I began to pick up bits of information here and there.  One item of information that seemed insignificant at the time but would turn out to be highly relevant about two years later was a witness who claimed to have bumped into Shaun Theriault the day after the robbery at a place called Mark’s Pizzeria in Mount Morris.  Shaun asked for a ride to Geneseo and the witness agreed.  When they got to Geneseo, Shaun got out of the car and retrieved a shotgun from some bushes.  Then the witness drove him back to Mount Morris and dropped him off where he found him – at Mark’s Pizzeria.

My interviews during this time with Sephora were somewhat productive in filling me in on the cast of characters and identifying potential witnesses, but yielded little in the way of additional information about the day in question.  She just didn’t seem to have very much, other than sticking to the story she had given in her earlier statement, with amendments about the names.  I got records of her cell phone calls and we went over them.  There were several numbers called that she didn’t recognize.  That was potentially significant, implying that someone else was using her phone.  All of the calls were of very short duration except for two, of about 10 minutes each at 7:14 PM and 11:26 PM on December 8th, 2003 [the robbery in question had occurred by all accounts a few hours later at 4 AM on December 9th] to a phone number in Shortsville, New York that she did recognize as belonging to a girl named Katrina Gerew.  Sephora indicated that she did not remember the specific calls, but during that time she would call Katrina because Katrina was pregnant at the time, and Sephora was worried that she might be pregnant also.  This also did not seem significant then, although I did wonder why she would be calling a girlfriend about pregnancy issues when she was supposed to be involved in the planning and execution of an armed robbery.  But these calls did turn out to be quite significant based on what I found out later.

Despite these and many other efforts to jog her memory, I was never able to get from Sephora an account of her whereabouts in the hours leading up to the robbery.  She could not place herself in any specific location.  Her best guess was that she had left her home in Avon and driven to Geneseo to look for marijuana.  When I asked her if it was her habit to leave her parents’ home at about 3 AM on a school night to go buy drugs she simply cried and had no answer.  I inferred that it was not her habit to do so, but that left her presence in Geneseo at the time and place in question unexplained other than by her contention – that she was there trying to buy marijuana at that odd hour with no explanation for that oddity – or the prosecution’s, which was that she was there to participate in an armed robbery.  With nothing to bolster her account, it was nearly certain that a jury would adopt the prosecution’s version.

Floundering around at this point, and getting desperate as the date for the Grand Jury presentation closed in, I began just getting whatever information I could from Sephora:  everything she knew about Adrian, about Shaun, about Harder, about her girlfriend Mechal, and just about anyone or anything else I thought might be remotely related.

During these discussions I learned such tidbits as that Sephora had met Adrian through her sister, who knew Adrian’s girlfriend, named Angela.  Sephora and her sister would occasionally babysit for Adrian and Angela.  Angela had a car but Adrian didn’t.  Mechal was Sephora’s dearest friend from the second grade.  Mechal lived with her boyfriend in Mount Morris.  His name was “Cocoa” and he sold drugs.  Cocoa was very big and mean and he and Sephora did not get along.  Mechal had a car.  Mechal had given a statement to the police and had not been charged, as a result of which there had been a falling out and Sephora no longer spoke to her.  Harder was a friend of Mechal’s and he lived in Mount Morris and his nickname was “Lard”.

I objected that, well, you know Eric Harder a little, then.  To which Sephora replied rather emphatically, pointing her finger at me: “No, I don’t know him at all, whatsoever.”

Weird.  I asked her to write all this down to help me to keep it straight:

 

Now, it didn’t make sense for Sephora to lie about Harder.  There was no point to it, since she admitted that the other two had been her passengers.  So, based on this, I tentatively concluded that she was telling the truth.  That Harder had never been in her car and that she had never met him.

This led me to develop a theory:  since Harder had to have been picked up from work in Leicester, 4 or 5 miles distant from the robbery in Geneseo, there was another car.  And this car was driven by a female.  And the walkie-talkies were from the other car and it was the other female’s voice that had been heard.  And that’s where the shotgun had come from, too.  And Harder and Theriault and Paige were all pointing at Sephora to shield this other female.

And, I thought, this female must be Mechal.  Everyone is afraid of her big drug dealing boyfriend so they are shielding her so as not to arouse his wrath.

I thought this was plausible enough that it should be looked into, at least.  Which is what Grand Juries are supposed to do.  And while it didn’t exactly exonerate Sephora all by itself it might make her account, and her claims of ignorance of what was really going on, more believable.

So I began constructing a statement for Sephora to basically read before the Grand Jury and try to point them in that direction.  In New York a defendant has a right to testify before the Grand Jury and have a lawyer present, but the lawyer cannot participate other than by drawing his client aside and speaking to her privately.  I had had some success getting charges “no-billed” that way.  It seemed like a reasonable chance, though I was far from supremely confident and I still worried about the gaps in Sephora’s story.

About a week before the scheduled Grand Jury appearance I went to see Moran.  I told him there was “…a lot going on here” but my investigation was bogged down and I was hoping I could see Mechal’s statement.  I had also heard from another witness that there was video taken at some point at a gas station or convenience store that might show something relevant.  He claimed not to have any video and refused to provide Mechal’s statement.

On the Sunday morning before the scheduled appearance, October 3rd, I got a call at home from Sephora’s parents.  There had been a car accident and Sephora was injured.  She had been a passenger in her cousin’s car.  They weren’t sure about her condition.  She was in a hospital in Buffalo.  The police had found what they thought to be drugs in the car and Sephora had been charged with possession.

Great.

Turned out she had a closed head injury and was banged up but it was probably not serious, though she was being kept for observation.  I called Moran and asked that the appearance be adjourned.  He wanted it in writing.  He gave me one week.

A couple of things had come up during these days in my discussions with Sephora’s parents.  One was that they were very disturbed that a Mount Morris police officer named Dana Carson had been involved in the investigation that led to the charges against Sephora.  Carson had made unwanted sexual advances in the wake of an unrelated fender bender that had occurred in Mount Morris about a year before the event in question and was angry about being rejected, they said.  The only thing in the file I had indicating his involvement, however, was that he was one of two police officer witnesses to Harder’s statement.  This did not indicate an extensive involvement.  Plus, attorneys frequently hear complaints from their clients about police officers’ conduct, but pursuing these complaints is generally unproductive.  Criticizing police for minor infractions will only alienate a jury and if it doesn’t specifically undermine the charges it make you look like you’re just kicking up dust, which like so many other things makes your client look guilty.

Even so, the previous contact with Carson had some documentation supporting it:

 

 

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Filed under financial crisis, Judicial lying/cheating, Striking lawyers, wrongful convictions

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