Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Expletive in the court

Coffey's F word: the detailsthe others didn’t report

By David Baker
Posted Sunday, April 19, 2009

Last week, for the second time, a jury convicted Warren Powell of murder. The 38-year-old was found guilty of strangling his 22-year-old wife, Mary Ann, in 1994. The first trial also ended with a conviction but that verdict was overturned by an appeals court because of an error in jury selection.

This time, Powell was represented by attorney Stephen Coffey of the Albany law firm O’Connell & Aronowitz. During the trial, a question was raised about who is paying Coffey. Coffey objected to the question and called for a mistrial. The judge denied Coffey’s motion, but the question that was also raised in the last post on this page remains: Was Coffey paid for his representation? Or did he do it for the media coverage he knew the case would receive?

And there was plenty of media coverage. The Albany Times Union, the Hudson Register Star, The Daily Gazette and The Columbia Paper (until last week reporting only on the Internet) all had reporters at the courthouse in Hudson, as did television station WNYT and, at times, WRGB and WTEN.

But there were some details that none of these reporters passed on to their readers and viewers. Such as:

* Coffey’s use of an expletive during his closing argument. And he wasn’t quoting anyone. It happened about halfway through a somewhat disorganized and repetitious 80-minute summation, as some of the jurors were clearly struggling to maintain their attention. One woman in the middle of the front row had been stifling a yawn and others jurors were beginning to fidget. Coffey was saying that his client could have done something a certain way but he didn’t “…because Warren Powell knew that if he did, he would be f***ked.”

The word got the jurors’ attention You could almost hear some of them thinking: “Did he really just say what I thought he said?” But Coffey continued speaking, apparently unaware of his use of the inappropriate and unnecessary language.

* Coffey, also during his summation, referring to his client as “Wayne.” He immediately corrected himself. But five minutes later, he did it again.

* Coffey, at the start of proceedings on the last day of testimony, having to apologize to the judge for a sudden angry and disrespectful outburst. This happened twice. The first time was over a request by the prosecution to obtain via fax a document from the Schenectady County Jail regarding the dates that a witness had been incarcerated.

Coffey’s second display of apparently uncontrollable anger came when the judge seemed reluctant to grant Coffey’s request that the proceedings be moved from a small courtroom on the first floor to a bigger courtroom on the floor above. The reason for the request Coffey said, was because he didn’t want to have to present his closing argument with members of the State Police near to him and to the jurors.

During the trial, Coffey had repeatedly accused State Police and Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department investigators of fabricating evidence against Powell, although he presented nothing to substantiate his claim of possibly criminal conduct.

Judge Jonathan Nichols said he was reluctant to move to the upper floor as this could cause embarrassment to one individual covering the trial who would have great difficulty using the stairs. The courtroom on the second floor of the building, the judge noted, was not accessible to people with disabilities, a situation he called “shameful.”

Later, after a recess, the judge said he had spoken with the person and based on that, and on the fact that more people could be expected to attend the last days of the case, he would agree to the move.

The next day the jury found Powell guilty of murder.

As he was led away to a police van, Powell told a TV reporter that he plans to appeal. But Coffey, in a separate interview, said nothing about another court proceeding to challenge the verdict.

And why would he. Appeals generally get little attention in the media, certainly not almost three weeks of daily coverage. For Coffey, there just wouldn’t be any point.


Coffey's close encounter

The imagined danger
was closer than he knew

If it’s Wednesday, this must be Amtrak

For someone who so causally tramples on other people, attorney Steve Coffey leads a remarkably visible life.

His home address – on New Scotland Road in Slingerlands—is listed in the phone book. And most weeks, he literally broadcasts his whereabouts as he spends time promoting himself on radio broadcasts from the Amtrak station in Rensselaer.

And now he has been in the news for almost three weeks during the murder trial of Warren Powell, with his presence in the courthouse known to anyone with a newspaper, a TV or a computer.

This is a man who claimed in legal papers that I am “driven by paranoia” and alleged (in a letter to me) that I had carried out “assaults” on him and his office. Later (in a letter to the Committee on Professional Standards that he thought I would never see), he accused me of making repeated phone calls to his office during which I angrily demanded attention to my case.

There were no such phone calls. Not one. Just as there was no police misconduct in the case he just tried.

So look who’s calling me crazy.

But until he reads this post, he will have had no idea how close he was last week to the person he has claimed is unstable.

During a break in the Warren Powell trial Thursday morning, I left the courtroom and went to a bathroom next to the main stairs. The small room was empty when I walked in but a few seconds later, with my back to the door, I heard but did not see someone else enter and go into a stall. Then I turned to use a washbasin next to the door and as I did the other person came up behind me to also use the basin.

It was Coffey.

For about 30 seconds we stood side by side, both of us taking paper towels from two the dispensers in the small space. Then, without speaking, I left and went quickly back to my seat in the courtroom, wondering if Coffey might have recognized me and would make yet another false accusation.

But as the case continued he glanced around the courtroom several times without showing a flicker of recognition, not even a ‘where have I seen that person before’ expression. It was soon apparent that he did not know who I was.

When the court recessed for lunch, I asked a photographer if there was somewhere close by to get something to eat. He suggested a place called Cascades, just a block away. But as I approached the restaurant I saw Coffey and two other people with him going in.

I crossed to the other side of Warren Street and found another place to eat.

– David Baker


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Committee takes a second look

Coffey withholds his letters
as committee probe restarts

By David Baker
Posted Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Committee on Professional Standards says it is now conducting a reopened investigation of my complaint against Stephen Coffey of the Albany law firm O’Connell & Aronowitz. In a tersely worded letter last week, an attorney on the committee’s staff says I will be advised when this renewed probe has been completed.

Last September, six months after I had filed the complaint, the committee informed me that it found no basis for a finding of misconduct. But it had not forwarded to me letters it had received from Coffey in response to my allegation that he had contacted me and said he would take a look at my existing wrongful-death case but instead tried to get the case thrown out of court.

As I have reported on this page, these letters present a gross misrepresentation of what happened. They also contain at least one flat-out false statement.

I saw the letters only after the file had been closed – and only because a committee staff member who apparently had been protecting Coffey died suddenly, and the person who took over the file clearly was not fully familiar with the case when he partially granted my repeated requests for any letters Coffey had sent to the committee.

Partially, because I was only allowed to read them at the committee’s office, with the staff member sitting and watching me. He would not give me copies of them.

I then wrote to O’Connell & Aronowitz and demanded copies of the letters Coffey had sent to the committee. I said that if it would not provide them, I would conclude that it was not prepared to stand by statements made about me by a member of the firm

I have received no response.


Meanwhile, Coffey is in the courtroom this week, defending Warren Powell. Powell is accused of strangling his pregnant wife, Mary Ann, in 1994 and dumping her body into the Hudson River.

It’s the second trial for Powell. He was found guilty the first time but the conviction was thrown out by the Appellate Division because of a mistake in jury selection.

Coffey was not representing him then and some people are wondering why he is doing it now. Powell is already serving a long prison sentence for an unrelated drug conviction. Does his family have enough money to pay for Coffey to represent him? Or is Coffey, at the end of a now-fading career, doing it for little or nothing, looking for the publicly?

Last week, Coffey suggested during his cross examination of witnesses that State Police investigators had fabricated evidence to back up the prosecution’s case.

That’s a serious allegation, which may or may not help his client when the lawyer puts on a defense. Either way, it certainly won’t make Coffey any friends in the law enforcement community.

But it could get him some additional media attention. Which may be exactly what he wants.