Black: Presumed Guilty

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More than a year ago, Jemal Deshong was a lawyer whose only contact with the justice system was defending clients. It was during the course of defending one of his clients that Deshong’s world was turned completely upside down. Simply stated—the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau was so desperate to obtain the cooperation of one of his clients in an unrelated murder case that assistant district attorneys used underhanded tactics against him and the client, he contends. Eventually, for standing up for his client’s rights, he was “criminalized� Deshong contends. [The Manhattan DA’s office didn’t return a message seeking comment by press time].


The Black Star News is withholding the name of the Deshong client at the request of attorneys. The client, was facing drug-related charges. Additionally, prosecutors believed the client could assist them with information about a murder suspect in an unrelated case. An earlier trial of the murder suspect, a man named “Red� had ended in a hung jury. Prosecutors were now willing to discuss a deal for Deshong’s client, who refused to cooperate after a September 29, 2004 meeting between prosecutors and Deshong and the client.

Yet, according to court papers later filed by Deshong, prosecutors from the office of Manhattan District Robert Morgenthau attempted “underhanded� tactics. Deshong maintained, in a court session before Judge Bonnie Wittner, that in spite of his instructions that prosecutors not to talk to his client when he wasn’t around, the client was interrogated for 45 minutes shortly after he left the DA’s office. A few days later, he was again brought to the DA’s office and questioned without Deshong being around.

Court records show that Deshong raised these issues vigorously in a testy session before Judge Wittner on October 13, 2004. Transcripts show an attorney determined to protect the rights of his client and, on the other side, a judge who was clearly dismissive of Deshong’s concerns and issues. In the session, Deshong informed Judge Wittner that the actions of the prosecutors who had met with his client were “unethical� and “improper� interrogation. The fact that prosecutors told his client that they selected her for the case because she was known to be “harsh on drug offenders,� was meant to coerce the client into accepting a deal, Deshong argued. “Based on the case law that I have already researched this whole indictment can be dismissed because of the prosecutorial misconduct involved in this case,� Deshong said, records show.

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Schellhammer didn’t directly deny Deshong’s contention about the alleged improper meetings, records show. After Deshong left the DA’s office at the end of the September meeting involving his client, the client was taken upstairs to another floor, Schellhammer insisted. Nowhere in the records is there explicit mention that prosecutors never interrogated Deshong’s client while he was on that other floor.

Schellhammer also confirmed Deshong’s contention that a few days after the first meeting, the Deshong client was again brought to the District Attorney’s office. Schellhammer told judge Wittner that contrary to Deshong’s allegations, the investigator who brought the client to the DA’s office also told the suspect: “If your lawyer is not here, we’re not talking to you.� According to Schellhammer’s account, the client then–conveniently for Schellhammer’s claims–responded: “Good, I don’t want to talk to you without my lawyer. I did send this message to you that I wanted to talk to you, but let’s get my lawyer here.� Schellhammer added: “There haven’t been any violations. We’ll fully stand up to any scrutiny.�

Ironically, the judge didn’t even address Deshong’s contention that prosecutorial misconduct was grounds for dismissal of the entire indictment. “I really don’t understand what Mr. Deshong is appealing because actually nothing has occurred,� Judge Witnner asserted, records show. Things went downhill from there. “Don’t cite cases to me,� Wittner declared, when Deshong tried to point out previous incidents of improper interrogation that had resulted in the dismissal of a case.

“I want to cite cases,� Deshong insisted, records show. “A defendant may not waive a right to an attorney in the absence of an attorney. Even if what he is saying is true, he can’t say, ‘I want to speak to you.’ It cannot happen, judge.�

The transcript shows that Judge Wittner was apparently unimpressed, cutting off Deshong in mid-sentence with the retort: “Can you be quiet. Nothing has happened. There are no statements that are going to be used.� The judge added that if Deshong wasn’t happy he could always file a motion to have any prejudicial evidence suppressed—a far cry from what the lawyer was asking for.

Judge Wittner adjourned proceedings until late December. Deshong believed that his client’s rights were being trampled on. In a letter to senior prosecutors, Deshong complained about the conduct of the judge and that of the assistant district attorneys. As a result of his motion, the case was advanced and Deshong was summoned to a November 22, 2004 hearing before Wittner. “I was in court early so that the judge could discuss my motion for recusal and dismissal,� Deshong recalled. “I was under the impression that the case law and court minutes I presented in the motion were so compelling that she had to dismiss the entire indictment and that is why the case was advanced and I was summoned to appear.� What happened next could easily be the stuff of Hollywood.

On November 22, Deshong says, he approached the clerk’s desk in a section called the well –where court officers also sit adjacent to the judge—to ask if his client had been brought from Riker’s Island. When he was informed that his client wasn’t there, he asked if he could pass through the well and check at the correction department’s section in the rear rooms.

Deshong says he was surrounded by several court officers who attempted to wrestle him and handcuff him. He was slammed against a table with such force that a table leg broke. A court officer later claimed he was hurt when the table broke, records show.

On November 24, Deshong was back in court. A lawyer who represented Deshong at that hearing, before Judge Richard Weinberg, asked that he be released on his own recognizance. Deshong’s lawyer argued that he had an unblemished record, was a member of the bar in good standing, and had two children that were dependant upon him. Weinberg ignored the argument and set bail at $7,500.

Forty-eight hours earlier, Deshong, proud Harlem resident, had been a young idealistic Black lawyer hoping to defend his client’s rights. Now he stood before a judge as a “suspect.�


Neville Mitchell and Damien Brown are the two attorneys now representing Jemal
Deshong. From the get-go, when Deshong confronted the assistant district attorneys over his contention that his client’s rights had been violated, things went downhill for Deshong.

 â€œAccording to the charges Deshong was screaming and cursing and yelling that they bring on his case,â€? Deshong’s lawyer, Mitchell, says, referring to the November 22, 2004 courtroom confrontation. He noted that this version, as told by prosecutors, was “highly unlikely,â€? since court was not even in session at the time. Moreover, prosecutors weren’t even in the courtroom and there was no stenographer. “So what urgency was there for him to demand for his client?â€? Mitchell adds.

The lawyer also doubts that the court officers who wrestled and handcuffed Deshong were even aware that he was an attorney; contrary to their claims that they knew he was a lawyer. The lawyers believe that once the officers had ushered Deshong to the rear rooms and searched him, it was then that they realized he was a lawyer. At that moment, a campaign to discredit and demonize Deshong was immediately initiated—something like a code red. “Conveniently, a reporter from The New York Post just happened to be on the scene as Deshong was taken away,� Mitchell said, with incredulity. “It is my position that some court officer called the press either to advance the view that they knew he was a lawyer or to embarrass Deshong. Of all the cases, why did The Post conveniently decide to write about Deshong’s?� he wonders.

Both Mitchell and Brown aren’t surprised that Deshong was taken to Bellevue. “If I have a client who has a squeaky clean record like Deshong it’s hard to convict him,� Mitchell says. “But once he’s tainted by sending him to Bellevue….�
Brown contends that the $7,500 bail set by Weinberg on November 22 was retaliatory.

Was the judge familiar with Deshong’s disagreement with Judge Wittner? “In New York State you don’t set bail and hold a person based on dangerousness,� Deshong’s Brown says. “You assess based on the risk of whether he would come back. Here you have a person who had never been arrested; who lives here; who has two kids dependant on him; a practicing attorney; member of the bar whose license to practice law is at stake. For them to set $7,500 bail on an attorney is ludicrous and can be interpreted as racist.�


Deshong has always had the support of his family – his mother and his girlfriend post bail. Jemal quickly tries to resume his work as a lawyer. When he comes to court to represent his client, he is informed by court officers that he was “no longer� on the case.

This was peculiar, his attorneys contend. After Deshong’s arrest, there should have been a hearing to resolve his representation of his client, notes attorney Mitchell. “This is because Deshong’s client deserved to know whether there was a potential for a conflict of interest,� Mitchell says. “For example, if the district attorney was to offer Deshong a favorable plea on his own case, would it compromise his ability to defend his client? Or his client simply may no longer have wanted Deshong to represent him.�

Instead Deshong was summarily removed from the case. Apparently the client was brought in without counsel being present and he was told to fire Deshong. The client’s and Deshong’s rights were trampled upon. “You don’t summarily just release an attorney from a case,� Brown, the other attorney, notes.

A few setbacks quickly followed. Deshong has a two-year old daughter with whose mother he’s no longer in a relationship with. The woman has been arrested five times for harassment in the past—on each occasion, Deshong declined to press charges, his lawyers say. “It includes breaking the window of his car, throwing bricks at his window,� Mitchell said. Soon after his release, the woman filed some charges against Deshong. The police visited with Deshong and left without taking any action. “They should have returned to her and filed charges against her for filing false charges,� Mitchell said, noting that it would have prevented what followed.

Soon thereafter, Deshong went to his babysitter’s apartment in the Bronx and picked up his daughter and returned to his house. A few hours later, he heard a knock on the door. It turns out the mother of the girl had filed an Amber Alert—the national system instituted to help law enforcement officers locate kidnap victims—about the girl even though Deshong had picked the girl up on previous occasions.

Police swarmed on Deshong’s Manhattan home and arrested him—the girl was soundly and safely asleep. Additional to Manhattan charges of resisting arrest and obstruction of governmental administration, Deshong faced Bronx charges of trespassing, burglary and kidnapping.

Bail was set at $7,500 for the Bronx charges. Again, Deshong’s mother and girlfriend stepped forward. The judge in the Bronx court set a $1 bail on the Manhattan charges; Deshong was released to await court dates. The Bronx charges were dropped.


Deshong appeared before the Court on May 23, 2005 to face the Manhattan charges. He faced three counts of assault in the second-degree on police officers and one count of endangering the welfare of his own child.

Assistant District Attorney Gerald Murphy, from Morgenthau’s office, asked that bail be set at $50,000. “This defendant has an indictment pending in part 52 for assaulting a court officer in judge Wittner’s part,� Murphy declared in court, transcripts show. “Judge Wittner left the bench,� Murphy added, perpetuating a factual falsehood—Judge Wittner was not in the court when the incident occurred. Murphy also brought up the fact that Deshong faced charges in the Bronx and that he had been the subject of an Amber Alert there.

Murphy further told the court that Deshong was taken to St. Vincent’s and eventually to Bellevue “where he was treated at the Center for the Psychiatric. He was injected with a sedative agent while at Bellevue Hospital.� Moreover, Murphy said, Deshong had warned officers responding to the call over his alleged kidnapping of the daughter that “he was going to shoot uniformed officer he sees entering his apartment complex…� The strategy was to clearly portray Deshong as an unstable and dangerous individual, his attorneys contend.

Judge Weinberg set bail at $15,000 even though Deshong voluntarily showed up in court with his attorney after appearing in the Bronx court that very same day, Brown said. “My client has shown his willingness to come to court—yet they still set bail at $15,000,� he said. Again, Deshong’s mother and girlfriend came through. Jemal was now convinced that the system was conspiring against him. Out of a sense of frustration and disillusionment, he missed a court date on the Manhattan charges. “Even though he felt they were doing everything to frustrate him, as an attorney, an officer of the court, he should have shown up,� attorney Mitchell said.

When Deshong did appear in court, he now faced Judge Budd Goodman who ordered he be remanded to Riker’s Island. Judge Goodman thereafter repeatedly denied counsel’s request for bail. Deshong was behind bars for five months before Goodman agreed to a bail hearing.

Meanwhile, the grand jury sitting on the Manhattan case refused to indict Deshong on the serious charges of assault, resisting arrest and endangering the welfare of his child. He was indicted on the misdemeanor charge of obstruction of governmental administration. “I don’t see how you can dismiss the charges of resisting arrest and indict him for obstruction of governmental administration—particularly, when you also dismiss the core charge of kidnapping, which is the whole reason why police officers were sent to Jemal’s home in the first place,� attorney Brown said.
Deshong eventually made bail on the Manhattan charges.

The travesty of Goodman setting bail at $7,500 is that since Jemal has been incarcerated for almost six months, the most he could get if convicted would be three months, his lawyers say. “This I believe is a clear manifestation of the judge’s bias,� Mitchell said. “A prejudice that is so virulent it is evident in this ruling. This is true of Goodman in particular and the system and judges Jemal appeared before generally. Nothing else can explain the exorbitant bail but ‘the closing of ranks’ and or what appears to be racial animus." Mitchell added that each one when faced with Jemal, a member of the bar, acted in an extreme fashion. “He got no benefit for being a lawyer, let alone the fact that he had a clean record. Contrast this with a white female attorney who got bail set at about $2,500 for giving contraband to a prisoner recently in the Bronx.�

A hearing was held on November 28 before Judge Goodman to set another court date. Referring to the earlier incident when Deshong had missed a court date, Judge Goodman referred to him as “stupid enough, or whatever…� Even more stunning, Goodman made a remarkable, and for a sitting judge, stunning prediction. Deshong would “likely� lose his case at trial, the judge declared.

Mitchell and Brown, the attorneys, quickly filed a motion for Goodman to recuse himself.

Goodman retired from the bench at the end of the year. The next court date is slated for January 31 before Judge Daniel Fitzgerald. Given the pattern of incidents so far….

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