What Would It Have Taken to “Stop Singas”?

June 16, 2021

On June 8, reporter Sam Mellins tweeted a photo of a January 6, 1999 letter from then-Queens Assistant District Attorney Madeline Singas to Robert Knightly, a defense attorney working for the Legal Aid Society. The subject of the letter was a criminal case, People v. McKinney. Kevin McKinney was a member of the “Speedstick gang”, which was involved in armed robberies and other serious crimes in the 1990s. Singas explained in the letter that she was sending over a redacted version of two DD5s (detective writeups), in the case.

This note was rediscovered when Queens Supreme Court Judge Joseph A. Zayas threw out the convictions of three men—George Bell, Rohan Bolt, and Gary Johnson—for the murder of shop owner Ira Epstein and off-duty police officer Charles Davis on March 8 of this year. These three men were not connected to the Speedstick gang, yet the redacted evidence from the DD5s involving McKinney pointed to members of the Speedstick gang as the perpetrators of these killings.

The man in charge of prosecuting the three whose convictions were reversed was Charles Testagrossa, formerly the chief of the Career Criminal/Major Case Bureau at the Queens District Attorney’s Office—and more recently the deputy executive assistant district attorney serving under Nassau County (Long Island) District Attorney Madeline Singas, who held that elected position from 2015 until earlier this month.

Days after the fallout from People v. Bell, Testagrossa was out of a job. Meanwhile Singas, the prosecutor who was accused of withholding exculpatory portions of the McKinney filles, found herself nominated for a judgeship by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Despite outcry from over 40 law professors and many other area attorneys and decarceration activists, for whom “Stop Singas” became a rallying cry, the state senate confirmed her as the newest judge on the powerful New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest judicial body. She took office on June 8.

Her confirmation, with that record and in these circumstances, begs a simple question: What would it have taken to Stop Singas?

 

Legislators Need to Understand What a Bad DA Does

There was little precedent for blocking a nominee to the New York Court of Appeals, but those protesting Singas had something of a head start. Governor Cuomo faces an ongoing impeachment probe due to sexual harassment allegations, so many state Republicans pledged to reject any new Cuomo-nominated judge on those grounds.

Of course, Madeline Singas is also a Democrat, albeit a conservative one who supports mass incarceration. But progressives have been picking successful battles with complacent Democrats in New York state politics. In 2018, the Independent Democratic Conference, a coalition of moderate Democrats who rebelled against the state party to side with Republicans on major issues, was dismantled, and its eight members were targeted for primaries. Six of the incumbent IDC members lost to endorsees of the No IDC NY coalition.

Of the new state senators swept in during the No IDC wave, four of them voted no on Singas.  Out of the two No IDC-backed senators who did not oppose Singas during the confirmation vote, one, Senator Zellnor Myrie, swiftly received pushback from his base. Six other state senators who are registered Democrats were a No vote on Singas, including the Democratic Socialists of America-backed Julia Salazar.

Between the 10 Democrats and the Republican opposition, Singas opponents received 25 votes. Still, 38 state senators, including 21 Democrats, voted to confirm her.

Most elected Democrats still don’t get that a prosecutor can help to keep a community safer without fueling mass incarceration.

For those concerned with unnecessarily high incarceration rates and racial disparities in the state, opposing Singas was a no-brainer. As Nassau County DA, she fought hard for mass incarceration—one lawyer who defended clients in Singas’ district said that, with the Black Lives Matter movement making headway elsewhere, “it felt like we were in 1994 at the height of the war on drugs out in Nassau.” Singas designated a “heroin war room” in her office, opposed bail reform, asked for bail on virtually every trifling case, and taught her prosecutors how to flout the new bail law. She didn’t prosecute the eight police officers caught on video beating up Akbar Rogers in 2019.

These issues were all addressed by a joint press statement issued by several Democrats in the Senate who opposed Singas. But the reality is that most elected Democrats, even in a state like New York that has de facto one-party governance, still don’t get that a prosecutor can help to keep a community safer without fueling mass incarceration.

During the New York Senate Standing Committee on the Judiciary meeting on June 8, which was conducted over Zoom and recorded, many state senators can be seen fawning over Singas because of her job title.

This was later echoed by State Senator Anna Kaplan, who accused Singas’s critics of: “draw[ing] conclusions about Madeline Singas based solely on the fact that she has had a distinguished career as a prosecutor.”

Her failings seem just as invisible to many state legislators as they have been to the state bar.

 

Cultural Shifts and Timing

Of course, it isn’t just legislators who hold this view of prosecutors. Until the upheavals of the last decade, carceral prosecutors were routinely adored by constituents—especially wealthy white suburbanites like those who constitute the majority of Nassau County, New York’s population. Even now, many people believe that no one else (besides police) separates them from the gruesome distortions of crime presented by politicians and television shows—despite the long-term downward trend of crime in the United States.

Prosecutors don’t intervene in incidents of violence. Yet their rhetoric can make people feel safe, as if something is being done, even if that belies the reality. And that is an incredible political driving force. To cancel it out, there needs to be an equally powerful—and, usually, powerfully funded—force in opposition.

During the Trump era, mass outrage over federal judicial nominees shut some bad candidates down. After Ryan Bounds, a federal prosecutor in Oregon, was nominated by President Trump for a spot on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, he got tanked when his undergraduate-era writings were discovered by the opposition. Offensive and in poor taste, these writings were nonetheless not really any worse than the comments on race, gender and other identities that prosecutors make when trying to keep people of color off juries in criminal court. It was enough to sway US Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) to oppose Bounds’ nomination though, which ended up being withdrawn.

However, Singas has run a tight public relations ship for the most part, relatively free of scandals and public bigotry of the kind that could capture national attention, though usually one has to do public records requests, snoop on Twitter, or flip through endless pages of trial transcripts to see what a particular prosecutor really thinks.

Even campaigns that ultimately fall short can help to equip organizers for the road ahead.

Peter F. Martin, a local attorney who helped lead the campaign against Judge Singas’s confirmation, said that stopping her could have been a matter of starting earlier, so there was more time to build momentum.

“That’s a mistake we’re not going to make again,” he told Filter, “starting with the seat coming open at the end of the year: We’re already organizing to make sure that the Commission on Judicial Nomination has good candidates to choose from and that senators commit to rejecting any nominee who doesn’t bring to the court meaningful experience representing people or genuinely fighting to advance civil rights.”

“The fact that there was more debate about confirming a law-and-order prosecutor—the likes of whom is disproportionately represented on the bench—is a really good thing,” Cynthia Godsoe, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, told Filter. She added that many state senators seemed most concerned about how Singas encouraged efforts from her office to seek “loopholes” in recently passed discovery and bail reforms. Asked whether she thought it would have mattered if Singas was censured by the state bar for misconduct, Godsoe said she is “cautiously optimistic” that it would, because of renewed interest in prosecutorial misconduct issues in recent years.

Given the entrenched political and cultural factors at issue, this won’t be the last time a top appellate court gets a Singas. But national momentum is trending in the opposite direction. And even campaigns that ultimately fall short can help to equip organizers for the road ahead.


 

Correction, June 16: This article has been updated to correct the vote count in the Singas confirmation.

Photograph of New York Court of Appeals via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

Rory Fleming

Rory is a writer and licensed attorney. Previously, he ran Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors, and worked for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project and the National Network for Safe Communications at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He lives in Philadelphia.

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