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COURT

Appeals court reverses Cayuga County jury trial conviction

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A mid-level appeals court has reversed a Cayuga County Court jury trial conviction for the second time in four months.

The state Appellate Division-Fourth Department last month said there was a legal flaw in the jury selection process for the 2020 felony drug trial of Sid Shabazz Harrison, 11 Cady St., Auburn.

Harrison was convicted at trial in February 2020 of third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, a class B felony; fourth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, a class C felony; and two counts of second-degree using drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced by Cayuga Court Judge Thomas Leone that September on each individual charge, all to be served concurrently, with 10 years of incarceration and three years of post-release supervision being the longest sentence. The Dec. 23 appeals court decision granted a new trial.

The court ruled that a statement made by a prospective juror during the jury selection process for Harrison's trial regarding the credibility of police officers' testimony "cast serious doubt on his ability to render an impartial verdict" and therefore the judge should have allowed that juror to be removed for cause.

"Specifically, after the prospective juror stated that he was a former correction officer and had 'a lot of friends and family members' in law enforcement, he agreed that he would 'be inclined to give more credibility to an officer than [he] would a lay person,' explained that, based on his experiences, he found police to be 'honest people,' and specifically described one of the officers who would later testify for the People as 'an honest person,'" the decision said.

The decision noted that although the court inquired further of that prospective juror, the appellate division concluded that the prospective juror's answers to questions from the court failed to show that the prospective juror could render an impartial verdict and put any biases aside. As a result, the Harrison defense was improperly forced to use one of its peremptory challenges to remove that prospective juror.

The December jury trial reversal follows a similar appeals court decision last summer regarding  a different Cayuga County Court trial. In that case, Justin Tillmon, Auburn, was convicted in a jury trial in March 2019 of 20 crimes, including two counts of second-degree assault, a class D felony, for injuring two Auburn police officers. 

The appellate court noted in a decision from August 2021 that a prospective juror said during the jury selection process for Tillmon's trial that "he was 'not sure' whether he could be fair and impartial due to his family members’ experience with domestic violence."

The defense was denied a challenge for cause to have that juror removed and "the court erred when it did not obtain thereafter any 'unequivocal assurance' from the prospective juror that he could render an impartial verdict," the appellate court decision states.

That trial was presided over by former Cayuga County Court Judge Mark Fandrich, who retired last month.

One of Tillmon's convictions was for first-degree criminal contempt, a class E felony, for violating an order of protection. The Cayuga County District Attorney's Office said at the time that Tillmon repeatedly called his domestic violence victim.

Two Auburn Police Department officers received injuries while trying to arrest Tillmon in January 2018, the APD previously said, after being informed of an alleged domestic incident on Washington Street. The victim at the scene was assaulted, thrown down a flight of stairs and locked into a room, the APD said.

Tillmon was sentenced by then-Judge Fandrich in June 2019, getting 14 years, seven on each assault count, and two to four years for the contempt charge. He was also convicted of fourth-degree tampering with a witness, second-degree unlawful imprisonment and criminal obstruction of breathing.

As a result of the reversals, new trials are set to go forward for the Harrison and Tillmon cases. Joseph Sapio was the defense attorney for both Harrison and Tillmon during their original respective trials, while attorney David Elkovitch was assigned to handle their appeals.

Elkovitch spoke about the appellate court's decisions in an interview with The Citizen Jan. 4.

"You need a fair and impartial juror, that's what's guaranteed to each defendant. If you have someone on the jury that has their mind set or they're going to believe someone else just because they're wearing a badge, that isn't right," Elkovitch said.

Cayuga County Chief Assistant District Attorney Christopher Valdina, who frequently handles the appellate court work for the DA's office, said he respectfully disagrees with the appeals court rulings. Valdina said the way a person comes off in a courtroom can be different from how they would come across in a transcript, which is what the appellate justices review.

A transcript from one of the days of jury selection for the Harrison trial shows that Leone asked the prospective juror in question some additional questions and Leone received assurance from the perspective juror that he could be fair. Valdina said he thought Leone handled that well, and Valdina added that through the prospective juror's tone of voice and body language, "it was clear he was capable of being fair."

Valdina said he believes the judge and acting District Attorney Brittany Grome Antonacci, who was a senior assistant DA at the time of the trial and handled the prosecution, "had no question" that the prospective juror in question could be fair.

"The appellate division, looking at the transcript, had a different conclusion," Valdina said. 

He added that while the DA's office felt the appellate court should have affirmed Tillmon's conviction, "we can understand why, reading the record in that case, they might have reached a different conclusion."

Valdina said Tillmon's new trial is set to start April 11, while Harrison's new trial is still pending. Tillmon is at Cayuga County Jail, while Valdina said he believes Harrison is in the process of being transferred from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to the jail.

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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Education and City Reporter

Hello, my name is Kelly Rocheleau, and I cover the education and city beats for The Citizen and auburnpub.com. I've been writing for the paper since December 2016.

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