MANHATTAN SUPREME COURT — The trial of an accused drug dealer was thrown into chaos after it was revealed prosecutors hid the fact a cop who has been indicted on federal gambling charges was involved in the case.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Roger Hayes dressed down Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Sheetz, of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor's office, saying he was "troubled" that the cop's status remained hidden until after witness testimony.
The court had been hearing the one-week trial of suspected cocaine dealer Alshon Williams. It wrapped up Monday.
Hayes demanded to know why Sheetz did not reveal the detail sooner, especially when the role of Det. Richard Palase, referred to as Undercover 0015 in the case, was raised during cross-examination.
Palase, 46, formerly worked at a Manhattan North narcotics unit that routinely performed undercover buy-and-busts, including one that cracked an alleged drug ring run by five Columbia University students.
The 15-year NYPD veteran was arrested in June and charged in Brooklyn Federal Court with running a $6,000-per-day gambling operation out of several Staten Island storefronts. The case is pending.
In the Williams case, Palase was a "ghost" undercover, serving as unseen backup for the main undercover officer who allegedly traded marked cash in exchange for drugs from the defendant.
Another cop in the case took the witness stand Monday and brought up "Undercover 0015" for the first time in the trial, leading to a grilling on cross-examination by the defense about the ghost and his current assignment.
The cop, whose task it was to arrest Williams, said Undercover 0015 was no longer in his unit but that "I don't know specifically what unit he's in right now," according to a transcript read by the judge at Wednesday's proceeding.
The judge then directly asked Sheetz where the undercover was and why he wasn't testifying. But Sheetz only said: "He no longer works for Narcotics. I do not know exactly where he is. I can look into that."
The next morning she revealed Palase's name and status, sparking a call from the defense for a mistrial.
"You didn't think, as a lawyer appearing before this court, that you had an obligation at that point to say that you knew he no longer worked for Narcotics or to say, 'Judge, I don't know what unit he's in but he's under federal indictment?' " the judge asked Sheetz Wednesday.
Sheetz said she had known for a few weeks that Palase was one of the undercovers on the case and that he was under indictment, but felt it was not relevant because of his peripheral involvement in the investigation as a ghost.
She said she spoke to her supervisor after court on Monday and stressed that after conferring with her boss she disclosed the information the very next day in court.
"Your honor, I was told it was a non-issue that the ghost was indicted in this case because he was a ghost and a witness the people believe was not necessary to our case," Sheetz argued.
The decision not to reveal Palase's indictment was made in consultation with Sheetz's bosses at Special Narcotics.
But the judge said that was no excuse.
"You're the only one I deal with on the case," he said. "Supervisors, I don't deal with them. I don't call them. I deal with the lawyer on the case."
Hayes ultimately shot down a motion for a mistrial by Williams' attorney and ruled that Palase's involvement did not jeopardize the case.
"The fact that [Undercover 0015] has been indicted for gambling is of no consequence in this case," Hayes said, adding that Sheetz's actions and the actions of the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor did not constitute misconduct or require formal sanctioning.
"It's the court's view that this is not grounds for a mistrial. I've ruled in my opinion that there's been no misconduct by the prosecutor or the office," Hayes said. "I think the court wishes it hadn't occurred in this way, but giving some time to reflect … you had taken the appropriate steps in this matter. So, as far as the court is concerned, it's the end of this.
"I hope that as part of this, everybody learns something, that it's better to do it sooner than later," Hayes said.
Hayes ordered a subpoena for Palase on Tuesday, but he has not been located. In the event that he doesn't testify Monday, the judge can give the jury a missing witness charge, which allows the panel to consider whether prosecutors were trying exclude a witness who may have hurt their case.
Williams' attorney, Robert Georges, argued that prosecutors may have been minimizing Palase's role in this case and criticized them for disclosing his role as a "ghost" in the Columbia case, but failing to do so for Williams.
Georges also suggested the gambling allegations were not "some little personal issue," but something of more consequence to the work Palase was doing as an undercover cop.
The Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor declined to comment on the issue.
Kati Cornell, spokeswoman for the Special Narcotics Prosecutor's office, provided the following statement Thursday.
"As the judge clearly stated, the prosecutor did not hide evidence," Cornell said. "DNAinfo's assertion is flat out wrong. Following a hearing, the judge found the prosecutor handled the diclosure appropriately and brought the undercover officer's federal indictment to the court's attention in a timely manner. Further, the court found the undercover officer's indictment was of no consequence to the case at hand. Clearly the DNAinfo reporter misunderstood the nature of the hearing and the finding of the court."
DNAinfo stands by the story.