It didn’t take long for the attack on Rep. Lee Zeldin at a campaign event to become the latest flashpoint in the political fight over New York’s bail laws.
Hours after last week’s attack, Mr. Zeldin, the Republican candidate for New York governor whose criticism of Democrats’ changes to bail law has been a key issue in his country, said on Twitter that he expected the man arrested in the attack, David Jakubonis, to be released.
He then spoke at length when his prediction came true, stressing in press conferences and television appearances how Mr Jakubonis’ release without bail illustrated the problems with the bail law.
But almost immediately, the involvement of Mr Zeldin’s political allies sparked questions about the incident. Many Democrats seized on the candidate’s relationship with Monroe County Attorney Sandra Doorley, who just this week was listed on Mr. Zeldin’s website as campaign co-chair. They noted that the sheriff who filed the charge against Mr. Jakubonis, Todd K. Baxter of Monroe County, was also a vocal opponent of the bail law.
And finally, they questioned why Mr. Jakubonis had been charged with attempted second-degree assault, a charge that is not eligible for bail, virtually guaranteeing that he would be freed as Mr. Zeldin.
“I don’t know why a prosecutor wouldn’t charge the most serious offense,” said Charles D. Lavine, a Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and is a former criminal defense attorney. “Here is a situation where someone attacks an elected official with a weapon. Could it be – as some suggest – that the indictment was worded in such a way as to allow Zeldin to complain about bail laws in New York State? This I do not know.
State Assemblyman Demond Meeks, a Democrat from Rochester, went even further, saying he was surprised at the “lighter” charge, given Ms Doorley’s reputation as an “aggressive” prosecutor. ‘, and said the case was ‘certainly a political ploy’.
No evidence has emerged to indicate that the prosecution was chosen to secure Mr. Jakubonis’ release, serving to amplify Mr. Zeldin’s campaign message. Several Monroe County criminal attorneys said the charge was appropriate given the details of the July 21 attack.
And in an interview, the sheriff’s office investigator who filed the charge, Jeffrey Branagan, said there was no input from the district attorney’s office, other than telling him that the charge was not eligible for bail.
A spokesman for the sheriff’s office, Sergeant Mike Zamiara, said Tuesday that the sheriff’s office was “aware of a controversy surrounding this matter.”
He insisted, however, that “the sheriff’s office has no dog in this fight and we don’t want to be in it. There was no attempt to influence anything here.
A spokeswoman for Mr Zeldin said in a statement that Ms Doorley had not been involved in the charging decision, saying: ‘We understand that DA Sandra Doorley did not, is not and will not be involved in the prosecution of this case due to her friendship with Congressman Zeldin.
The episode began at a campaign stop near Rochester on Thursday when a man, identified by police as Mr. Jakubonis, approached Mr. Zeldin as he was giving a speech. In the video of the encounter, Mr. Jakubonis appeared to rest his left arm on the candidate’s shoulder, then move his right hand, in which he clutched a pointy plastic key ring shaped like a cat’s head, in the direction of Mr. Zeldin’s chest. , saying “You’re done”, multiple times.
Mr. Zeldin seemed to restrain him easily, and the man was quickly tackled to the ground, dragging the candidate with him. Mr. Jakubonis was charged by Baxter Sheriff’s Office later that evening; Mr. Zeldin was unharmed.
Sheriff Baxter has been outspoken in his opposition to changes to the state’s bail law, which went into effect in early 2020 and have since been amended twice. Democrats passed the changes, which prevented people from being held in prison for relatively minor crimes. (More serious crimes, including violent crimes, remain eligible for bail.)
Opponents of the law have said the changes have led to an increase in crime, but the data has not shown that to be the case, and the researchers say that since the law coincided with the start of the pandemic, it will be years before its full effect can be determined. But with the increase in certain categories of crimes, more people have been charged, released and re-arrested, providing ammunition for critics of the law.
In November 2019, Sheriff Baxter wrote an op-ed calling on the state to roll back the law before it takes effect and saying “the public will be shocked at the negative impact this law will have on the safety of our communities. “. And the day after Mr. Jakubonis’ attack, the sheriff announced on Twitter that he had cleared his schedule to discuss “repair” criminal justice reforms with any interested state legislators.
Mr. Branagan said he did not speak to the sheriff before determining the charge to bring against Mr. Jakubonis.
He said he drove to the scene of the attack and questioned Mr Zeldin and some of his aides about what happened. He had never spoken to Mr. Zeldin, a congressman representing Suffolk County on Long Island, and said he did not know who the nominee was.
After completing his investigation, Mr. Branagan made three calls to the district attorney’s office. The first two were to Perry Duckles, a deputy to Ms Doorley, whom Mr Branagan advised he planned to file a charge of attempted second-degree assault.
At the time of their second call, Mr Duckles had just been informed that two police officers had been shot dead in Rochester. So he asked Mr. Branagan to direct further conversations about the case to Matthew Schwartz, the head of the district attorney’s major crimes unit.
During a conversation with Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Branagan confirmed to Mr. Schwartz that the charge was ineligible for bail.
Mr. Branagan said it was not unusual in Monroe County for the sheriff’s office to file such charges without a prosecutor present, and lawyers who practice in criminal court there agreed. .
Still, the district attorney’s ties to Mr. Zeldin have come under scrutiny in Mr. Jakubonis’ case. Calli Marianetti, spokeswoman for Ms Doorley, said the district attorney was not personally involved in any conversations about the charge against Mr Jakubonis and on Friday decided to recuse himself from the case. (Mr. Zeldin on Monday claimed that Ms. Doorley recused herself in an “instant decision” after the attack, according to the Albany Times Union.)
Ms. Doorley, Mr. Duckles and Mr. Schwartz were not made available for comment.
Ms Marianetti added that Ms Doorley stopped advising Mr Zeldin’s campaign in the spring. She said that because there were never any documents formalizing Ms Doorley’s role, there was no “official stepping down” from the campaign. In an emailed statement later Thursday, Ms. Doorley’s office said it informed Mr. Zeldin of her decision not to participate in his campaign on April 28.
Defense attorneys and former prosecutors who practice in Monroe County said the attempted assault charge was appropriate given the details of Mr. Jakubonis’ attack on Mr. Zeldin, and that they saw nothing overtly suspicious in the circumstances in which she was filed.
Jill Paperno, who worked as a public defender in Monroe County for 35 years before leaving for private practice in the spring, said the attempted assault charge made sense given the sharp keychain that Mr Jakubonis held did not appear capable of causing the “serious physical injury” that would be required to charge a higher degree of assault. (In New York, serious physical injury means that a substantial risk of death is created, or the possibility of disfigurement or impairment of a bodily organ.)
Donald M. Thompson, a partner at Easton Thompson Kasperek Shiffrin in Rochester and a criminal defense attorney, agreed that the charge accurately reflected the allegations, was not particularly lenient, and was not unusual that the two agencies discuss the charge beforehand.
When asked if this could have been coordinated to benefit Mr. Zeldin, Mr. Thompson was contemplative.
“As a political consideration, could this have happened?” he said. “I think we can’t rule it out. Is there any evidence of this? Not that I know. But certainly people who are so inclined to go that way could make that argument. Because we can’t pull the curtain, you can’t tell, that’s why it happened or that’s not why it happened.
Mr. Jakubonis has since been charged federally with assaulting a member of Congress using a dangerous weapon. He has been held in a federal facility since Saturday; a detention hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.