Questions about Rice’s early prosecutions

The Kings County district attorney’s prosecution of Antowine Butts for double homicide imploded and ended in an acquittal in 2000, but not before Butts spent two years in a Rikers Island jail cell. After the case unraveled, Butts alleged that he was a victim of prosecutorial misconduct in a civil rights lawsuit that was settled with New York City.

Among those named in that suit: Kathleen Rice, the architect of the case against Butts.

Rice is now one of the most visible law enforcement officials in the state. She followed her rookie tenure as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn from 1992 to 1999 with more than five years as a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia before becoming Nassau County’s district attorney in 2006.

A Democrat who has touted herself as a progressive prosecutor “both tough and smart on crime,” Rice holds a 10-point edge over Bruce Blakeman, her opponent in the November race for the 4th District U.S. congressional seat, according to a Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll.

Despite that high profile, Rice has largely escaped attention — including during the current campaign — for starting her career in an office in which prosecutors are alleged to have put some innocent people behind bars with coerced confessions, bogus witness statements, coached lineup identifications and other tactics.

Brooklyn prosecutors have moved to vacate the convictions of nine people in the past year due to flawed case-making, and about 100 convictions won during the 24-year tenure of former Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes remain under review by the new district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson.

Rice and the former Brooklyn assistant district attorneys whom she recruited to Nassau County have not been publicly tied to the cases under review, and a spokesperson for the Kings County district attorney’s office declined to reveal the names of the prosecutors involved with the cases.

Eric Phillips, a spokesman for Rice’s campaign, wrote in response to questions that Rice has “made efforts to discern” whether she, or any member of her staff who worked in the Brooklyn office, is associated with the cases under review. Rice has “yet to hear of any connections,” Phillips wrote.

Besides ending in an acquittal, the failed prosecution of Butts — whose only previous criminal conviction was from hopping a subway turnstile — bears many similarities to the cases being vacated.

Rice, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story. In response to a general overview a reporter emailed to Rice’s spokespeople last week, Phillips sent an emailed statement Friday that read, in part:

“Summarizing an award-winning, 22-year career by handpicking and focusing solely on a few unproven smears while omitting discussion of the thousands of cases that counter this slant is a disservice to the public. Adding the DA’s voice to that questionable reporting process would only enhance the credibility of a story that we believe is deeply misleading to readers.”

To be sure, in a career marked by high-profile triumphs, the vast majority of Rice’s cases show no public evidence of misconduct. However, Rice has downplayed the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that have emerged on occasion, or her spokespeople cast the criticism as motivated by politics.

During her successful run for district attorney nine years ago, Rice said of the Butts case:

“Disgruntled defendants sue the DA’s office all the time. Having only one case against me puts me in the baseball Hall of Fame as far as I’m concerned.”

A Newsday examination of Rice’s career found at least five instances, including the troubled Butts case, in which Rice was accused of intentional misconduct or of committing a procedural error serious enough to put her case in jeopardy.

At least two convictions Rice helped secure have been overturned for those reasons, and at least three sitting or retired judges have rebuked Rice over her handling of a case. A fourth judge sanctioned her in another case.

The examination of Rice’s record involved documents never before made public, including the contents of her Brooklyn personnel file — which had been reported as lost — and statistics concerning the dispositions of cases she tried there. Newsday also obtained previously unavailable transcripts of depositions from Butts’ civil suit, including Rice’s and that of the drug-using alleged eyewitness upon whom the case relied.

Click here to read the rest of the Newsday story.