Throughout the recent high-profile trial of Chanel Lewis for the murder of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano, Judge Michael Aloise sparked controversy.
In addition to repeatedly ruling in the prosecution’s favor, Aloise frequently sported a purple tie, a statement of solidarity with the Vetrano family. Many seasoned criminal defense attorneys were surprised when after only one full day of jury deliberations, Aloise—instead of issuing what’s known as an Allen charge (which asks jurors to continue trying to reach a verdict)—quickly declared a mistrial.
Queens prosecutors immediately declared their intention to seek a retrial, and the next court date is January 22. Despite his questionable handling of the first trial, Justice Aloise continues to preside over the case.
A City Limits investigation has found that questions raised about Aloise’s impartiality are not new. Indeed, since Aloise became a Queens Supreme Court-Criminal judge in 2004, Aloise has had at least 42 cases reversed or modified by the appellate division, with a handful reaching the full New York State Court of Appeals.
By contrast, Aloise’s Queens counterpart Justice Gregory Lasak, who was elected at the same time as Aloise, has had 17 reversals or modifications, including one last week. Lasak made important initial rulings in the Vetrano case before retiring last summer in order to run for Queens DA. His cases were then passed over to Aloise. Kenneth Holder, another Queens judge who handles high-profile felony trials, has seen 24 of his cases altered by the appellate division since he joined Aloise and Lasak in 2008.
As the Queens DA’s office prepares to retry Lewis, Aloise’s track record could come in for scrutiny—and raise questions about whether there is sufficient oversight and accountability of judges in New York State.
Nearly two dozen new trials ordered
Along with Brooklyn and Westchester, Queens is covered by the 2nd Division-Appellate Department of the New York Supreme Court. That division affirms the overwhelming majority of felony convictions, and in recent years the 2nd Division’s case reversal rate stood at a mere 3-5 percent.
Whereas many affirmed convictions can acknowledge “harmless errors” by a judge, “reversible errors” provide grounds for a new trial or re-sentencing. Nearly two dozen times over the last 15 years, the 2nd Department has ordered new trials in Aloise’s cases.
The appellate division has cited a variety of problems with Aloise’s actions at nearly every stage of a trial, from his rulings on the initial legality of the arrest and what constitutes admissible evidence through voir dire (jury selection), jury instructions and sentencing.
Aloise’s overturned cases show him to have repeatedly made erroneous rulings in favor of the prosecution. In the People v. Patterson (2009), a panel of four appellate judges unanimously ruled that the phrasing of Aloise’s Allen charge to the jury—”[W]e are going to keep you together until we have a verdict”—coerced a guilty-on-all-charges conviction. In People v. Chestnut (2012), the full Court of Appeals ruled that Aloise had improperly allowed the prosecution to convict Kevin Chestnut, a robbery defendant, by allowing the case to be combined with Chestnut’s co-defendant’s unrelated drug case.
“Judge Aloise has never met a criminal defendant he didn’t want to put away—unless that person had a badge,” says veteran criminal defense attorney Ron Kuby, who represented a defendant in a notable Aloise case that reached the Court of Appeals.
Aloise indeed made headlines last year when he rejected Queens prosecutors’ request for a six-month jail sentence for Kevin Desormeau, a former NYPD officer convicted of lying under oath about his role in planting evidence in a drug arrest. Despite the perjury verdict, Aloise declared that sentencing Desormeau to jail would feed the “false narrative that police officers are not to be trusted and their testimony is not to be believed.”
In the Vetrano case, Aloise inherited Lasak’s controversial pre-trial rulings approving the initial arrest of Chanel Lewis and accepting the DNA evidence. But in the first trial, Aloise rejected the defense’s attempt to introduce into evidence the 16,000 hours of surveillance footage the NYPD had collected that showed no sign of Lewis near Spring Creek Park, where Vetrano was murdered. He also sustained the prosecution’s objection when the defense tried to show that Lewis’ cell phone records may have placed him elsewhere.
Along with Lasak’s initial decisions, such rulings by Aloise (if repeated) could provide grounds for an appeal if Lewis is convicted in a second trial.
Meanwhile, as the New York Law Journal reported last summer, Aloise has a daughter and a son-in-law who work as assistant district attorneys in the Queens DA’s office. He has also been photographed hanging out at CitiField with the Queens Assistant District Attorney’s Association.
A call for more oversight
In the wake of the late Ken Thompson’s successful 2013 campaign against long-time Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes, which spotlighted the issue of wrongful convictions, there has been considerable attention paid to the misdeeds of local prosecutors. Judges, many of whom are elected (with some appointed), have yet to face comparable scrutiny.
Asked to explain whether there is sufficient accountability for judges, Office of Court Administration spokesman Lucian Chalfen told City Limits via email that Aloise “has been elected once [to Civil Court] and reelected twice more [to Supreme Court] by the citizens of Queens County.” Chalfen added that Aloise has been “an active felony trial jurist for more than fifteen years, [and] cases are appealed and sometimes reversed.”
Elections for judges, of course, are a stronghold of the party machines. When Aloise and Lasak ran for reelection in 2017, they were two of the six candidates running on the Democratic line—and the full party slate won all six judgeship positions. Given the mandatory retirement age of 70 for New York State Supreme Court judges, Aloise would not be eligible to run again in 2031.
Aside from elections, Chalfen says, “oversight in New York State for elected or appointed judges comes from either the State Commission on Judicial Conduct or the appellate process.” There’s no record of an Aloise investigation by that commission, however.
“We are a long way from where we need to be in terms of judicial oversight,” says Brooklyn Law School professor Jocelyn Simonson. But both she and Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale, author of the End of Policing, say the work of CourtWatch NYC and the Police Reform Organizing Project are an important step in that direction.
“CourtWatch and PROP are keeping track of bail requests in criminal court and the degree to which judges are acting independently of prosecutors,” says Vitale. “We need independent eyes monitoring every stage of the process, from arraignment to pleas, trials and sentencing.”
In the meantime, if Lewis again stands trial for the Vetrano murder, Aloise’s actions will once again take center stage.