A New York judge is taking on the mayor and police chief over a decision he made last year -- and it turns out the law is on his side.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Edward McLaughlin is pushing back against Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, who on Wednesday seemed to blame him for the shooting death of Officer Randolph Holder.
At a joint press briefing on Wednesday, de Blasio and Bratton both had words for the alleged shooter, Tyrone Howard -- and appeared to bring McLaughlin into the controversy.
"The perpetrator involved here was obviously a hardened, violent criminal and should not have been on the streets," said de Blasio, referring to Howard, 30, who was charged late Wednesday with Holder's murder.
Last October, Howard was caught in a 19-person drug bust that landed him in McLaughlin's courtroom, according to multiple press reports. Because Howard didn't have any felony convictions for violence on his record, McLaughlin chose to recommend him to a drug program.
This didn't sit well with Bratton in the wake of the officer's killing.
"He would have been the last person in New York City I would have wanted to see in the diversion program," said Bratton, who on the same day was supposed to be in Washington for the launch of a new police-led initiative that seeks prison alternatives to drive down mass incarceration.
In a series of interviews on Wednesday, McLaughlin shot back at de Blasio and Bratton for implying he was somehow at fault for allowing an alleged cop killer to roam the streets of New York.
"I'm certain that I made the correct decision," McLaughlin told Reuters. "I'm glad that in 33 years, this is the first tragedy that occurred in any way remotely connected with something that I did."
McLaughlin, through a court representative, declined further interviews. But his comments are consistent with his no-nonsense style.
A Daily News columnist called McLaughlin a "law-and-order" jurist whose record has been commended by the paper's editorial page. One New York criminal defense lawyer described him as "stern" and a "hardass." McLaughlin himself earlier this month blasted New York's chief judge over his plan to reform New York's broken bail system, which he called "an insult" to judges.
Judging by his response to de Blasio and Bratton, it is likely McLaughlin views the criticism as an affront to the work he does.
"When you get a robe, you don't get a crystal ball," the judge told The New York Times. "Diversion is a good thing. It has a lot of support."
Indeed, drug court is a staple of New York's criminal court system, allowing defendants with a history of drug abuse and no violent criminal record to submit to drug treatment in lieu of incarceration. Once a participant completes the terms of the program, the charges may be dismissed or reduced.
According to McLaughlin, Howard was a good match for diversion because of his drug felony convictions and a family and personal history of PCP abuse, which a drug evaluator and support letters from family members corroborated.
"If there’s a way to recapture a guy’s life, isn’t that an appropriate thing to try?" McLaughlin said in the Reuters interview, adding that none of Howard's multiple arrests for drug offenses figured into his decision. "It’s not like I flipped a coin. ... I did not know what would happen a year later."
“"When you get a robe, you don't get a crystal ball."”
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said in a statement that his office opposed the idea of a drug diversion program for Howard and recommended a prison term. McLaughlin countered there was nothing in Howard's record or his family's at the time to justify prison.
"Not one of these people, either the individual defendant or his associates and her associates, had any violence in their past," the judge told the New York Post. Authorities have linked Howard to a 2010 shooting that wounded an elderly woman and a child, but the Times reported prosecutors found insufficient evidence to charge him. So McLaughlin rightly ignored the incident.
After McLaughlin made his recommendation and another judge signed off on it, Howard appeared to comply with the terms of his drug program -- until he failed to show up to court on Sept. 17. A warrant for his arrest followed, and then Tuesday's violence happened.
As for the drug bust that got Howard in trouble last October, one unnamed prosecutor told the Times that Howard was far from the kind of suspect who called the shots.
"He was driving crime, but he wasn’t an East Army gang member as we saw it," the prosecutor said. "More of a lone drug seller."
The Daily News' Harry Siegel observed in a column Thursday that it's "easy to say in hindsight" that McLaughlin made a mistake when he sentenced Holder to a drug program, but much harder to come up with foolproof judicial rules for similar situations.
But really, it shouldn't be that hard. McLaughlin did everything he could at the time with the information he had about Howard. And then, using his judgment and the tools the law gave him, he made the call that needed to be made. That's exactly how every judge should do his or her work.
The law can only judge you for things you've done, not for things you'll do in a future nobody knows.