AUBURN — Three more criminal cases were dismissed and another postponed in Cayuga County Court Thursday in light of an ongoing investigation at Auburn Correctional Facility.
Late last month, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision launched an investigation at the prison after Corrections Officer Matthew Cornell admitted planting a weapon on an inmate.
Cayuga County District Attorney Jon Budelmann said Cornell admitted to the action in order to break up a dangerous prison gang by having the inmate shipped to another facility. Cornell has been suspended from his job amid a state corrections investigation, and that inmate was never criminally charged for possessing the weapon. Budelmann has said there is no evidence implicating any other corrections officers.
But as a result of the admission by Cornell, the district attorney reached out last month to nine defendants who had recently been charged in cases involving Cornell. Budelmann said he agreed to dismiss or vacate six of those cases "in the interest of justice," saying there was no evidence of officer wrongdoing, but he did not consent to dropping the other three as the officer was only minimally involved.
On Thursday, Judge Thomas Leone vacated the convictions and sentences of two defendants — 26-year-old Jose Muniz and 28-year-old Thomas Ozzborn — and dismissed the ongoing case of 32-year-old Tyrell Ingram.
Leone's rulings, which were agreed to by the district attorney's office and defense attorneys, came two days after Cayuga County Judge Mark Fandrich took similar action in two other cases involving Cornell.
Muniz had pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree promoting prison contraband in October 2014 and was sentenced to serve 1 1/2 to three years in prison in May 2015. He will be returned to Great Meadow Correctional Facility to finish serving a separate sentence for three prior convictions, including a 2012 conviction for attempted-third degree burglary.
Meanwhile, both Ozzborn and Ingram will now be released from prison.
In Ozzborn's case, the defendant had been serving a five-year sentence at ACF for drug-trafficking and illegal weapons possession when he was charged with first-degree promoting prison contraband. According to Ozzborn's defense attorney Rome Canzano, Ozzborn was accused of possessing a sharp metal weapon — an "easily-concealable tweezer" — in May 2015, just days before he was set to be released from prison.
"The Corrections officer who allegedly collected the contraband was corrections officer, Matthew Cornell," Canzano wrote in an affidavit to the court. "The evidence against Mr. Ozzborn consisted nearly exclusively of the testimony of Officer Cornell."
Canzano said Ozzborn chose to plead guilty in June "in lieu of facing the risk of losing at trial and a lengthy prison stay." He was sentenced to two to four years in prison, which he began serving at Great Meadow Correctional Facility. However, since his prior prison term has expired, Ozzborn will be released upon the vacation of his contraband conviction.
Similarly, Ingram had also maxed out on a previous sentence for criminal possession of a weapon when he was charged with first-degree promoting prison contraband last year. He was arraigned on the charge in December — pleading not guilty — and was being held at ACF while his case was pending.
"Tyrell Ingram fits the same pattern as the others," Ingram's defense attorney, Simon Moody, said. "He was set to complete his incarceration and then he was indicted and charged with promoting prison contraband. ... And the only complaining witness was corrections officer Cornell."
Budelmann agreed to dismiss Ingram's indictment, saying in court Thursday that his office was "not inclined to continue this prosecution" but that "there has been no showing of wrongdoing in this case by anybody."
After the Muniz, Ozzborn and Ingram dismissals, there was an additional case that raised concerns in court.
In November 2016, 25-year-old Jkendric Agee was convicted of first-degree promoting prison contraband after a jury found him guilty of possessing a weapon at ACF. Agee was scheduled to be sentenced on his conviction Thursday before Judge Leone, but his attorney Ryan Muldoon asked to postpone the matter.
Although Muldoon said Cornell was not involved in Agee's case, he was still concerned as DOCCS has placed two other ACF officers on administrative leave.
"Mr. Agee has continued to maintain that the weapon was planted on him," Muldoon said, noting that without the names of the other officers, he can't be sure they weren't involved in any wrongdoing in his client's case.
Cayuga County Assistant District Attorney Brian Leeds objected, saying the matter was "pure speculation." However, Leone agreed to adjourn Agee's sentencing for two weeks to provide Muldoon an opportunity to explore the investigation at the prison.
While his office has agreed to dismiss the cases involving Cornell, Budelmann has also emphasized that the vacated convictions do not mean the defendants are innocent.
"These defendants voluntarily and knowingly pleaded guilty with the assistance of counsel. They admitted their guilt ... and we have found nothing saying they did not do it," Budelmann said in an email to The Citizen earlier this week.
He reiterated that point in an email Thursday. "To err on the side of caution, this office and the County Court Judges agreed to the vacatur and dismissal of any case where that CO (Cornell) was the primary witness. There is no evidence whatsoever of any wrongdoing or misconduct relating to any of these criminal cases," Budelmann said.
Still, multiple defense attorneys do not agree.
"I have no belief that this is contained to one singular corrections officer," Canzano said in a phone interview with The Citizen. "In fact, I think that's impossible. I've represented and continue to represent a number of people in Department of Corrections who complain that there is significantly more than what is being described by this local prosecutor."
"As it turns out, the least 'credible' people in our society were telling the truth while trusted officials fabricated evidence," Muniz's attorney Adam Van Buskirk added. "I hope this will be a lesson to those within the system and within society who assume all defendants to be guilty."
Budelmann in response said, "As a prosecutor, I work with facts and evidence. If Mr. Canzano has any reliable proof that there was more than this one corrections officer who planted a weapon on an inmate, he should report that evidence to the department to investigate instead of needlessly tarnishing the reputation of corrections officers."