As South Coast Today is reporting, a superior court judge’s decision dismissing murder charges in a 2003 New Bedford murder case has slammed Bristol County prosecutors for their ‘reckless disregard of truth’ in the case. The matter demonstrates the continued importance of defense attorneys in protecting clients against abuses by the government in criminal prosecutions.
NEW BEDFORD — Prosecutors demonstrated a “reckless disregard of the truth” in presenting a witness who lied to a grand jury by identifying two men who were subsequently indicted for the 2003 murder of Alberto “Tito” Gonzalez, according to a judge’s ruling in Superior Court.
In 2008, prosecutors did not reveal that Fernanda Gonzalez, the victim’s mother, originally told police she did not see the men who shot her son, said Judge Gary Nickerson. The grand jurors also never learned that the initial police detective investigating the case in 2003 did not believe her story.
In his blistering Jan. 25 ruling that dismissed murder charges against Jonathan M. Pittman and Shawn M. Hunt, Nickerson criticized the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office for a “sloppy” presentation at grand jury, suggesting that investigators had “blinders on” for the purpose of securing an indictment.
“The grand jury was sold shoddy merchandise without disclaimers,” Nickerson wrote.
The judge added that key portions of the district attorney’s lead police investigator’s testimony “strained credibility,” and he said prosecutors presented “half-truths” and “artfully avoided” mentioning inconsistencies in Gonzalez’s testimony.
“The grand jurors were never given the information that would allow them to reach the obvious conclusion,” Nickerson said.
In a legal summary provided by the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office, prosecutors said the judge made a “clearly erroneous” statement that they had proceeded with reckless disregard for the truth.
The District Attorney’s Office said Gonzalez’s testimony was but a small part of the investigation, and argued that the grand jury was shown a video depicting a police detective pressing Gonzalez in 2004 about her prior inability to identify the suspects.
“The grand jury had all of the circumstances of her evidence before them, in order to make their reliability determination,” prosecutors said.
However, Nickerson said the evidence had a “pernicious effect of a false identification coupled with the nature of the government’s misconduct” that nullified prosecutors’ arguments that the case should proceed because the remaining evidence is strong.
The judge’s ruling has been stayed until March 8, meaning the indictments against Pittman, 25, and Hunt, 36, remain active. Both are still incarcerated. Prosecutors plan to reintroduce evidence this month to the grand jury, court records said.
“I am naturally disappointed with the judge’s ruling but we will be filing a motion for reconsideration by the end of this week and fully intend to move forward with this case,” Bristol County District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter said in a prepared statement.
On Tuesday, Pittman appeared in New Bedford District Court. Prosecutors had refiled a murder charge against him but withdrew the paperwork because the Superior Court case is still open.
The new file in District Court contains an affidavit filed by state Trooper Anne Marie Robertson, the lead investigator in the case. The affidavit mentions a statement by Fernanda Gonzalez that Nickerson said was proven to be false.
The affidavit notes that Gonzalez said she saw the gunman in the front passenger seat — purported to be Pittman — shooting at Tito Gonzalez during the fatal drive-by shooting on the evening of Nov. 20, 2003.
However, based on her vantage point south of the intersection of Hillman and Spruce streets, Gonzalez would not have been able to see the passenger side of the assailants’ vehicle, said Nickerson, adding that it should have been “obvious to anyone who took the time to make a rough diagram of the scene.”
Prosecutors countered that Gonzalez’s original description of the shooting was corroborated by other evidence and a second eyewitness who was at the scene.
Three months ago, during a meeting with prosecutors, Gonzalez, the only eyewitness who testified at the grand jury, admitted to lying about her identifications of Pittman and Hunt, according to court documents. That revelation was immediately reported to the judge and defense attorneys.
Prosecutors said they believed Gonzalez had no motive to lie and that “nothing on the face of her evidence as it existed suggested that it was inherently unreliable.”
Gonzalez told the grand jury she had seen Hunt in the back seat of the assailants’ vehicle. However, she first told police she could not offer any suspect descriptions nor how many people were in the vehicle, said Nickerson. Prosecutors said Gonzalez actually described seeing two black men in the vehicle.
In the weeks following her son’s murder, the judge said, Gonzalez learned the same theory that police assembled: that Pittman and Hunt conspired to kill Tito Gonzalez because of a brawl outside a local nightclub several weeks earlier.
That scenario is supported by several other witness statements, according to court documents. Besides Gonzalez, 26 other witnesses testified at grand jury. They said the defendants made incriminating statements about the murder and enlisted others to clean out the car and discard the gun.
A third defendant, Cory Hubbard, 32, who was indicted in January 2009 with Hunt and Pittman, pleaded guilty two months ago to accessory charges.
In February 2004, Gonzalez told police that a televised image of Pittman — who was arraigned in District Court on an unrelated case — triggered a “sudden recollection” that she saw Pittman extend his body through the passenger-side window and shoot at her son, court records said.
Fernanda Gonzalez subsequently confronted Pittman in District Court. Nickerson said the encounter was never disclosed to the grand jurors, but prosecutors contend they presented that evidence.