Upstream. A Mohawk Valley Blogzine.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Transgressions & Confessions Of A Prosecutor

This is part four of a series of posts on Ralph Tortorici. In 1994, Ralph Tortorici held a class hostage at the University at Albany. Tortorici suffered from delusions associated with his diagnosis of schizophrenia. One student was injured in the struggle to disarm him, and Ralph was convicted in 1996 of kidnapping, attempted murder and other felonies. On August 10, 1999, Ralph Tortorici committed suicide in the Sullivan County Correctional Facility. Just this month his family finally reached a financial settlement with the State of New York due to the State’s failure to provide adequate treatment for Tortorici.

“My law partner and I have a phrase we use when we talk about trials. We say, "In court, the truth is what it looks like." ... A good cross-examiner can make [nothing] look like something on a witness stand.” Prosecutor Cheryl Coleman in an interview with Frontline.

Cheryl Coleman, former Albany County Assistant District Attorney, knew she didn’t have a case against Ralph Tortorici. In an interview on the PBS show Frontline, Coleman said, “We didn't realistically think that we had a snowball's chance in hell of prevailing.” She couldn’t find one psychiatrist who was willing to be an expert witness for the prosecution. Everyone she contacted believed that Tortorici should not be prosecuted. When she finally got a psychiatrist to examine Tortorici, he found him not competent to stand trial and sent a long letter to Judge Rosen stating his concerns.

Coleman told her boss that it was not advisable to prosecute this case, but he told her to go ahead and do it anyway. Rather than refuse to prosecute the case, Coleman mentally geared herself up to win it using any method she could. In the end, she won the case, in part because Tortorici never attended his own trial. His mental illness kept him from doing so. If he had shown up just once, the jury would have seen how disturbed he was, and he would most likely have won his case.

Coleman refers to her prosecution of Tortorici as a “burn and destroy mission” and “a kamikaze mission.” There was no concern for justice. Although it appears that Coleman stayed within the bounds of the law in her prosecution of Tortorici, she herself admits she strayed beyond the bounds of morality.

Coleman won her case, but in the end she lived to regret it. Here is her answer to Frontline’s question about her initial response to the news of Tortorici’s suicide.

... It wasn't too long before I left the DA's office. It was in the summer of [1999]. It was just before lunchtime, and I was with some friends, some of the other DAs in the hallway. I think we were leaving the courtroom. Two newspeople from the various newspapers that are always in the courthouse told us they had just gotten on the wire that Ralph had killed himself.
I pretty much went into shock. A lot of stuff had happened to me in the interim. ... I had lost a child in between when Ralph's verdict happened and when Ralph had killed himself. ... Once you lose a child, it's such a huge and life-defining event that it gives you everything in common with somebody who's experienced the same thing, even though you'd have nothing in common with them otherwise. It gives you nothing in common with even the people who you had everything in common with before.
When it happened, I felt responsible for his death. I thought of his parents and I thought of his family, and I thought how he didn't have to die. I remember rounding [up] my best friend, who became my law partner. ... [We] just went and drank soda for about three hours someplace. ...
I remember thinking that ... there was something wrong with what we did. ... I felt really ashamed.
I felt really responsible, and I felt like that we had to really seriously take a look at what we did. It had a huge effect on me.

Read the complete Frontline interview with Cheryl Coleman.


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