January 6, 2000

1999 HOMICIDE CONVICTION RATE AFTER TRIAL IN QUEENS COUNTY REACHES UNPRECEDENTED 94%

Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown announced today that year end statistics for 1999 show that his office's trial conviction rate in homicide cases reached an unprecedented 94% last year and that, overall, including pleas of guilty the conviction rate after indictment in homicide cases was 98%.

District Attorney Brown said, "Homicides are the most serious crimes that can be committed. The taking of a life is a terrible act that also takes a devastating toll on families, friends and the community at large. As professionals, the jobs of prosecuting those accused of murder and other types of homicides is among the most important and most serious aspects of our prosecutorial work. It is therefore very gratifying to me - - and it should be of tremendous importance to the people of Queens County - - to know that our office has succeeded so well in this critical endeavor."

District Attorney Brown said that statistics compiled by his office show that 33 homicide cases were tried to verdict in 1999 and that of them 31 cases resulted in guilty verdicts and two cases resulted in acquittals. The average sentence after trial was 32.2 years. In addition to trials, the office obtained pleas of guilty to murder, manslaughter and other violent felonies in 79 additional cases for a total conviction rate of 98%. This is the highest conviction rate after trial since 1976. Last year the conviction rate after trial was 86%; in 1997 it was 83%.

In making today's announcement District Attorney Brown praised the work of assistant district attorneys assigned to his Homicide Investigations Bureau which is under the supervision of Assistant District Attorney Peter T. Reese and his Homicide Trials Bureau which is headed by Assistant District Attorney Daniel A. Saunders. Both bureaus are under the overall supervision of Executive Assistant District Attorney for Major Crimes Gregory L. Lasak. The District Attorney also commended the work of assistant district attorneys in his Career Criminal Major Crimes and the Supreme Court Bureaus who prosecuted some of the matters as well as trial coordinator Eugene Reibstein of the Major Crimes Division.

District Attorney Brown said, "It is because of the commitment to professional excellence of the men and women of our office who prosecute these cases and those who supervise them like Gregory Lasak, Eugene Reibstein, Daniel Saunders and Peter Reese that we have achieved these important results."

Among the homicide cases that resulted in convictions by trial or by plea of guilty in 1999 were the following significant cases:

People v. George Bell:

    The defendant was charged in the Office's second death penalty with murder in the first degree for the murders of off duty Police Officer Charles Davis and check cashing storeowner Ira Epstein during an attempted robbery which occurred just before Christmas in 1996. The trial lasted 16 weeks. After reaching a guilty verdict on the first degree murder charges, the jury decided that the defendant was to be sentenced to a term of life in prison without possibility of parole. An accomplice, Gary Johnson, was tried separately in connection with the case. Johnson, while not the shooter, was convicted of having acted in concert with Bell in planning and carrying out the robbery attempt during which the two victims were murdered. Johnson is awaiting sentence. He faces 50 years to life in prison.

People v. Lavar Chung

    In a case that resounded throughout Cambria Heights and Laurelton, Lavar Chung was convicted of murdering a 16 year old Holy Cross High School student in his own front yard as his mother and sister watched in horror. Chung was found guilty of intentional murder after stabbing Robert Keith Myers once in the chest. According to the trial testimony, the two young men and one 11 year old friend of the defendants had a longstanding dispute. On the day of the murder the 11 year old had had an argument with the victim in which the younger boy punched the victim in the face and, along with approximately a dozen of his cohorts, chased the victim who ran away. Later that day, the defendant and the 11 year old went to the Myers house where they began rummaging through Mr. Myers' car. The victim's sister saw them through her window and rapped on the pane to get their attention. The two then fled and returned with several of their friends, armed with knives. The mother and sister were outside when the group returned and the victim went outside to protect his mother and sister and to confront the group. A fight ensued, and the defendant plunged a knife into the victim who collapsed mortally wounded in his mother's arms. Chung was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison and the 11 year old was tried and convicted in Family Court.

People v. Hector Roman.

    The People prevailed with a guilty verdict on murder and other charges against defendant Hector Roman who murdered a retired school teacher Marguerite Curtin, a well-loved member of the South Ozone Park community. According to the trial testimony, Roman broke into the victim's home at night and killed her with eleven blows from a hammer as she slept. The defendant had stolen Miss Curtin's car and blamed her for his arrest and the fact that his family no longer wanted anything to do with him. The victim's brother, a retired police officer, found her battered body after he was unable to reach her for two days. Roman was apprehended when Miss Curtin's car which he had stolen again was spotted. Roman was seen getting into the car with the keys in his hand. He was wearing the victim's rosary beads and gold necklace at the time of his arrest. He was sentenced to 37 years to life in prison.

People v. Michael Mikucki.

    A 19 year old Florida man pled guilty to the December 1998 murder of a Glendale laundromat attendant at the Myrtle Avenue store where she worked. According to the evidence presented at trial the defendant entered the laundromat under the pretext of asking Millicent Lemmie for change for a $5.00 bill. When she opened the store's money box, the defendant pulled out a hatchet, demanded all of the money and began hitting her on the head with hatchet. When she collapsed on the floor he cut her throat with a fishing knife. The defendant pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

People v. Steven Smelefsky.

    A Ridgewood man pled guilty in two separate capital murder cases in September 1999. According to the charges, Steven Smelefsky and a co-defendant Keith Knoesel went to the home of a friend, George Capobianco, to rob him. Once inside his apartment Smelefsky stabbed the victim while his co-defendant struck him over the head with a bottle. After the murder the defendants fled but returned to the apartment over the next few days to steal other property. They were arrested on August 11, 1998 driving the victim's 1991 Lincoln. During the course of the investigation, detectives of the 104th precinct linked Smelefsky to the murder of another Queens resident whose body had been found in Stroud Township, Pennsylvania in May 1998. It was alleged that Smelefsky and another man, Rubin Ortega, attacked an elderly man Louis Thumudo, 92, who lived in the same building and who was bound and thrown into the trunk of his car by the defendants. They then drove his car to Pennsylvania, dumping Mr. Thumudo's body by the side of a road. Smelefsky was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and his two co-defendants are awaiting trial.

People v. Fitzroy Morris.

    Shortly after Christmas in 1997, a Brooklyn College honor student and an aspiring rapper were brutally attacked inside a grocery store on Guy R. Brewer Boulevard. One young woman was killed but the other survived to tell the horrendous tale to a jury this year at the trial of her attacker, Fitzroy Morris. She testified that Morris had met them at a night spot and that they innocently agreed to drop him at work on their way home. They got to the store which still had other customers inside and went in for a few minutes to play video games. After a short time the defendant ushered the others out the door, locked it and said "I am going to kill you both" and began the savage attack. Morris is awaiting sentence and faces 37 years to life in prison.