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Queens Chronicle

Katz takes heat at NY1 DA debate

Seven candidates square off during forum moderated by Errol Louis

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Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2019 10:30 am

Borough President Melinda Katz, widely seen as the front-runner in the seven-person race for the June 25 Queens district attorney Democratic primary, tended to be the focus of her rivals' attacks at NY1’s Tuesday debate.

Katz leads the contest in fundraising and has the Democratic Organization of Queens County’s backing. One of the other candidates, former Civilian Complaint Review Board head Mina Malik, blasted the borough president for having no experience in criminal law and being tied to the borough machine.

“You’re entrenched. You’re entrenched, Melinda,” she said. “You’re part of the establishment. And that’s what we’re trying to break through up here … Break through the establishment, because you’re not going to serve Queens County well.”

Katz, who was endorsed by the healthcare workers union 1199 SEIU this week, shot back: “I am entrenched with the schools, I am entrenched with the working people of the borough of Queens, I’m entrenched with the cure violence groups.”

The five other candidates in the race are public defender Tiffany Cab·n, City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), ex-Queens prosecutor and judge Gregory Lasak and former prosecutors Betty Lugo and Jose Nieves.

NY1 anchor Errol Louis moderated the debate. Cab·n and Lancman also took the borough president to task for changing her position on ending cash bail. While Katz now frequently says she supports ending it without qualification, months ago she was only talking about it in reference to low-level offenses.

Lasak also criticized Katz for saying that she would as district attorney give less “weight” to confessions obtained by defendants without their counsel present. She took some shots of her own at Lasak, saying he’d been accused of racism in jury selection and bringing up decisions he made in court that were ultimately reversed, though he in kind said she mischaracterized them.

“Do your homework, please,” Lasak said.

Despite how tense the NY1 debate could get, the candidates did find common ground on some policy issues. They all said they would decline to prosecute sex workers, though the details of each’s position on prostitution vary, with only Cab·n saying it should be totally decriminalized. They all mostly agreed that confessions should have to be videotaped from beginning to end.

In a different part of the debate, Nieves criticized the public defender for her lack of experience as a prosecutor and brought up how the Queens County Bar Association had found her unqualified to be DA.

“Don’t you believe that Queens residents deserve a district attorney that has the experience to lead on day one themselves?” Nieves asked.

Responding, Cab·n brought up her background: She is “a 31-year-old queer Latina from a working-class family, whose parents grew up in the Woodside housing projects.”

“Women like me are not supposed to be on stages like this,” said the public defender, who was endorsed by City Comptroller Scott Stringer this week. “And I’ll tell you what. It is no surprise to me that a group of overwhelmingly older white, male lawyers said that I was not approved for this role. The fact of the matter is what I represent is a clean, bold break from the status quo.”

Gloria Pazmino of NY1 asked the candidates to weigh in on the Chanel Lewis case. The 22-year-old Brooklyn man was convicted earlier this year for the high-profile murder of Karina Vetrano, the Howard Beach woman slain jogging in Spring Creek Park. Lewis confessed at the 107th Precinct station house without an attorney present but pleaded not guilty.

Some of the DA hopefuls declined to speak to the specifics of the case, given that Lewis is appealing it, but Lugo and Lancman offered their takes.

“There should have been a special prosecutor from the get-go,” said Lugo, pointing to the pressure from the public to find and convict a suspect and the potential conflicts of interest that could be posed for law enforcement officials in the case.

Lancman was highly critical of how the case was conducted.

“This prosecution troubles me deeply and there’s nothing wrong with us talking about it,” the councilman said. “You have a man with obvious learning disabilities being subjected to extensive interrogation, being kept up all night, away from his family — it was the first time he was away from his family in his life.”

Lancman also pointed to how Lewis appeared to think that the prosecutor he confessed to was his attorney.

“This is a case that has all the echoes of another Central Park Five case,” he said.

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