Erie County District Attorney’s Special Victim’s Bureau Chief Roseanne Johnson appeared recently in court with an alarming report. She told the judge in the midst of jury selection for a rape trial that she had a statement to read from Assistant District Attorney Kristi Ahlstrom. Ahlstrom informed that court that the defendant, William Payne, 48, had tried to kill her by running her over in the street. Johnson denounced the attack as an effort to intimidate the prosecutors who were in the jury selection process for the rape trial. A mistrial was declared. The problem is that Payne was not in the car and a video tape of the street contradicts the account of Ahlstrom. Yet, the trial was halted, Payne was held in jail for seven days pending investigation, and there is no indication of any discipline for the prosecutor.
Ahlstrom claimed that she was crossing Delaware Avenue at West Eagle in Buffalo after the first day of jury selection in Payne’s trial when she spotted a black sedan at a green light. She said that she took two steps into the street and the car sped directly at her. She said that the car came within feet of her. She said that she was splashed by a puddle and almost hit. She identified Payne as the driver.
The allegation led the court to halt the proceedings, declare a mistrial, revoke Payne’s bail, and investigate him for a serious criminal act. Seven days later however his defense counsel produced a video showing another person getting into an SUV and the car never came within two feet as claimed by Ahlstrom. It appeared 10 feet away. Moreover, Payne does not have a license, does not own a car, and Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority security camera footage shows he was taking a train and a bus home at the time of the alleged incident.
The judge acted in a worthy sense of precaution given the written account and identification by Ahlstrom. However, he clearly agreed with the defense since he reinstated the bail order for Payne.
A new trial has been scheduled and the earlier selection jurors released. Payne is charged with third-degree rape and third-degree incest and will now be tried in August.
One curious aspect was that a story yesterday declined to name the prosecutor, which appears in other articles. This was done according to the article to protect her safety. However, her name is part of the record. More importantly, it was not Payne in the car and the video, according to defense counsel, does not show a car coming within two feet of Ahlstrom. Moreover, there is no charge against the driver to attempted assault. The question is who is threatening Ahlstrom. The alternative explanation is that it is an effort to protect the prosecutor from being named in a case of false or mistaken identification. We have previously discussed the general approach of courts not to name prosecutors in opinions in alleged cases of prosecutorial misconduct or trial errors. In this case, Ahlstrom accused a person of what amounts to criminal conduct and was the reason for his incarceration for seven days and a mistrial. I do not understand the basis for the Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita or his staff in asking for the name not to appear in media coverage.
Ahlstrom previously worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. District Court for the Northern District and was made a prosecutor in 2009.
By the way, defense counsel is constantly trying to get in overwhelming data showing that eye witness testimony, even by victims, is notoriously unreliable. In this case, the prosecutor herself reportedly said that she had a clear facial identification on the defendant only a few feet away. Go figure.