Witness Against MS-13 Murdered After Identity Released To Defense
New Cassel, NY – A man who was scheduled to testify against MS-13 gang members was murdered outside his home because of New York’s new criminal justice reforms that now require prosecutors to turn over witnesses’ names 15 days ahead of trial.
Although many people have been focused on the failure of the new bail reform laws the state put into effect that are releasing violent and repeat offenders back onto the streets without bail, the changes to New York’s discovery law have just as dire consequences, The New York Times reported.
New York had been one of 10 states that allowed prosecutors to withhold a witness’ identity from the defense until the eve of trial.
But under new laws, key witness and evidence must be shared within 15 days of a suspect’s arraignment.
There are exceptions to the rule – a judge can shield witnesses’ identities with a protective order - but in the case of 36-year-old Wilmer Maldonado Rodriguez, a judge ordered his identity to be revealed in December of 2019, according to The New York Times.
Rodriguez, in October of 2018, intervened when he saw two boys being threatened by members of MS-13.
The gang members then proceeded to beat the good Samaritan in the head with a bat and stab him repeatedly, The New York Times reported.
Officials said that despite having almost lost his life for a good deed, Rodriguez was willing to testify against his MS-13 attackers.
But then Nassau County Court Judge Helene F. Gugerty ordered that his identity be given to defense attorneys last month, effectively signing Rodriguez’s death warrant.
He was found beaten to death in his yard on Sunday, The New York Times reported.
Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said that being forced to identify Rodriguez ahead of the trial may have cost him his life.
“This courageous man was prepared to testify against alleged assailants at an upcoming trial, but he was brutally beaten to death before he could,” Singas said a statement. "This case underscores the importance of safeguarding the identities of witnesses and victims of crime and our hearts are with Mr. Maldonado’s family and friends as we grieve his loss."
Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder filled in some of the details of what happened after the judge ordered prosecutors to turn Rodriguez’s name over to the defense, The New York Times reported.
Commissioner Ryder said the trial was initially scheduled for Jan. 6 but had been delayed, and that a “pattern of intimidation” against Rodriguez had started then.
He told Newsday that Rodriguez was assaulted and another victim was shot at after their names were released to the defendants’ attorneys.
“That protective order, because of the new changes in the law, was lifted,” the commissioner said. “We don’t know if the defense counsel turned that info over to the defendants.”
Defense attorneys were quick to push back, according to Newsday.
“I never gave him the name of those people. And he never asked me for it,” defense attorney Greg Madey, who is representing 20-year-old Denis Pineda in the case, said. “I’m offended by the allegation that Denis Pineda had something to do with orchestrating this murder.”
Another attorney involved in the case said it was “completely inappropriate” to suggest the defendants got the information from their attorneys, Newsday reported.
“I feel horrible that this happened,” said Justin Feinman, attorney for 19-year-old defendant Elian Ramos Velasquez. “This should have never happened. I just don’t see how you can blame a particular judge or attorney.”
Although the judge had ordered the information released to defense attorneys in December of 2019, she also said the defendants couldn’t see it until Jan. 6, the planned start date for the trial, according to Newsday.
But the trial was delayed because under the new criminal justice laws that went into effect at the start of the year, the defense was entitled to have all the discovery for a certain number of days ahead of trial.
That meant that the trial for Rodriguez’s attackers couldn’t have begun on Jan. 6, Newsday reported.
"We continued to request that the identities of the witnesses be protected until we could be ready for trial,” the district attorney claimed.
However, court officials said neither side’s attorneys sought a change to the date on the judge’s protective order when the trial didn’t start as planned, Newsday reported.
Law enforcement has placed the blame for Rodriguez’s murder squarely at the feet of Democratic lawmakers who passed the criminal justice changes.
"We're asking Albany to go back and rethink it,” Commissioner Ryder told Newsday. “Come back with changes to that law, but it needs to happen quickly before we have another victim as in this case.”
Proponents of the new law have said there is no direct correlation between the new law and Rodriguez’s death, and defended the reforms.
"Nothing in the new law prevents the district attorney from seeking and being granted a protective order for the safety of witnesses," an anonymous state official told Newsday. "Based on the facts that we understand, there was a protective order and there was a move to lift the protective order. The judge granted that."