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Brooklyn DA Admits ‘Mistake’ For Letting Killer Driver Off The Hook

12:01 AM EST on February 6, 2020

Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez’s office botched a case against a killer driver. His spokesman took exception to our coverage. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

The Brooklyn District Attorney admitted that his office botched a slam-dunk case against the reckless driver who killed an elderly woman as he was backing into his driveway last year.

Prosecutor Eric Gonzalez conceded on Wednesday that his staff failed to follow new criminal justice reforms that went into effect at the start of the year, one of which requires prosecutors to hand over documents that weren't required before — and failing to do so led prosecutors to drop the case against John Sherman for killing 85-year-old Stella Clinton.

“The assistant district attorney thought he had additional time to prosecute the case in January [but] time had lapsed. It was unfortunate. It was a mistake on the part of this office. I’m not making excuses for it,” Gonzalez said under questioning from Streetsblog at an otherwise unrelated press conference on a gang takedown. "We notified the family that we couldn't pursue the case. It was a learning lesson for us in the office [and we are] making sure this never happens again."

Streetsblog reported on Monday that Gonzalez’s office dismissed the case against the 49-year-old Sherman — who struck and killed Clinton as he reversed into his driveway on Avenue S in Marine Park on March 6, 2019 — because the DA let the charges expire under the state’s so-called speedy trial rule.

But there was nothing speedy about this case except its rapid demise. Just three weeks after Clinton was killed, cops charged Sherman with failure to yield and failure to exercise due care — misdemeanors that carry a maximum of 30 days behind bars and a $250 fine. The DA had ample time to prosecute the case.

But Gonzalez said that as of Jan. 1, as part of the new criminal justice reforms that included discovery reform, prosecutors must now submit all of their evidence to the defense team sooner than before, in addition to a "certificate of compliance" stating it's all there and true.

Before the reforms went into effect, prosecutors did not have to submit the evidence and certificate of compliance, and only had to submit what's known as a "statement of readiness" before heading to trial — all within a 60-day time frame, which typically starts counting down after an arraignment.

It's unclear if the prosecutor in Sherman's case merely forgot that the new law went into effect and forgot to file the certificate of compliance, or if he just didn't do the work, or do it fast enough — but regardless, the District Attorney's office failed to submit the new required documents before the clock ran out.

"We were in fact not ready under the law," Gonzalez said. "In January, the law changed — all the old cases now had to comply with new laws. When we filed the statement of readiness it could not legally be sustained because we had not complied with the new discovery laws."

Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who is representing the Clinton family, said he hopes this failure will lead the DA's office to never make the same mistake again — and give vehicular crimes the attention and resources they need.

"I'm glad the DA made that clarification and I hope this incident will be yet another factor supporting his announcement to have a more robust response to traffic violence," said Vaccaro, who is undertaking a civil suit that Gonzalez said he would assist.

But another New York City lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity called it “extraordinary” that the Brooklyn District Attorney's office would fail to follow the new reforms that had long been in the works, especially involving a case where someone was killed.

This is the car that a driver used to kill Stella Clinton last year. Photo: Ben Verde
This is the car that a driver used to kill Stella Clinton last year. Photo: Ben Verde

And Gonzalez's mistake in letting Sherman off the hook is not only a slap in the face to Clinton's family, it also has dangerous consequences — the car Sherman was driving the day he ran over and killed Clinton has racked up seven speeding tickets and one red light ticket since that day, on top of the 10 camera-issued tickets for speeding and two for blowing through a red light before the fatal crash last March.

John Sherman is a reckless driver — a wanton recidivist — who remains behind the wheel of his Toyota Highlander with the vanity plate, 4 SHERMS.

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