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Mar 17, 2010 12:38 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Court tosses out guilty plea from 2003 murder in Water Mill

Mar 17, 2010 12:38 PM

A state appeals court has thrown out the 2004 guilty plea of Alberto Julian Santiago, who is accused of killing one man and injuring another in what investigators said was a drug-related shooting at a Water Mill home seven years ago.

The New York State Appellate Court, 2nd Division, tossed out the plea agreement that resulted in Mr. Santiago’s jail sentence, citing “hostility and bias” toward the defendant by the judge who handled the case. Issued on March 2, the decision said County Court Judge Gary Weber may have coerced Mr. Santiago into taking the plea offer by making threats of a stiff sentence should the case go to trial.

As a result, Mr. Santiago, 35—who maintained his innocence in a jailhouse interview two months before he entered a guilty plea to a lesser charge—will be back in Suffolk County Criminal Court in Riverhead on March 26 to once again face a charge of murder in the second degree, on which he was originally indicted.

Just hours before his murder trial was set to begin in October 2004, Mr. Santiago accepted a plea agreement and pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in connection with the April 2003 shooting death of James Garcia. The more serious second-degree murder charge, which carried a sentence of 25 years to life upon conviction, was dropped. He received a 14-year prison sentence on the manslaughter charge.

“We find that the remarks of the trial court throughout the proceedings in this case concerning its sentencing intentions in the event that the defendant proceeded to trial and was convicted, as well as its hostility and bias toward the defendant, created a coercive environment, which rendered the defendant’s plea involuntary,” the four-judge appellate panel wrote in its decision this month.

Barry Kamen, who handled the appeal on Mr. Santiago’s behalf, said that Judge Weber’s handling of the plea agreement was improper—a point the judge might have even acknowledged to the defendant at one point.

“What really strikes you when you read the transcript is the involvement that Judge Weber took in these negotiations,” Mr. Kamen said this week. “And apparently the defendant was sparring with Weber.”

Mr. Kamen pointed to a portion of the trial transcript where Judge Weber was repeatedly impatient and combative with Mr. Santiago. At one point in the exchange, Mr. Santiago said he wanted to plead guilty but wanted to explain what had happened in the house.

“I don’t want to get into all of that—all I want is some simple answers,” the judge responded. “I’ve been putting up with you for days, and I’m sick of it.”

At another point, the judge warned Mr. Santiago that if the case went to trial, the prosecutors “probably are going to prevail on something that can wind up getting you more jail time than the plea offer is. I’m reasonably confident of that.”

Mr. Santiago’s attorney at the time of the plea deal, former Suffolk County District Attorney Henry O’Brien, said this week that he did not think Judge Weber had been coercive in anyway, and that Mr. Santiago’s decision to accept the plea deal had been a thoughtful and logical one.

“It was his decision,” Mr. O’Brien said. “There is always a great risk in going to trial.”

The vacating of the conviction means the case will now return to the Suffolk County Criminal Court system where it had been on the verge of trial. Jury selection was scheduled to begin on the day the plea was reached. The case will be on the calendar of Judge C. Randall Hinrichs this time around, and neither Mr. O’Brien nor Mr. Kamen said he expected to represent Mr. Santiago.

Mr. Santiago was arrested by local police in Providence, Rhode Island, two days after the April 29, 2003, shooting at a house on Edge of Woods Road in Water Mill. He had also suffered two gunshot wounds.

Witnesses to the incident offered conflicting recollections of how the events transpired, but it is apparent that Mr. Garcia and another man, Joan Manuel Rojas, had come to the Water Mill house to collect on a large debt owed to them by either Mr. Santiago or the house’s owner, Alan John Kuchtuk.

Mr. Kuchtuk, Mr. Santiago and two others were in the house, all but one of whom acknowledged to police that they had been using cocaine at some point. According to the account offered by Mr. Kuchtuk and Mr. Rojas, an argument ensued between Mr. Santiago and Mr. Garcia, after which Mr. Santiago drew a gun and shot Mr. Garcia twice and then shot at Mr. Rojas as he fled the house, grazing the back of his head. Despite his wound, Mr. Rojas made it to Mr. Garcia’s car and drove himself to a hospital in Manhattan—where Suffolk County Police homicide detectives found him that night.

In a jailhouse interview with The Southampton Press in August 2004, Mr. Santiago proclaimed his innocence. He said Mr. Garcia had been there to get money from Mr. Kuchtuk—a point supported by Mr. Rojas’s account—and that when he heard arguing from another room, he tried to run out of the house but was himself shot by someone as he fled. He said he was then grabbed by someone and struggled with them but never had possession of a gun or shot anyone. He said someone else shot Mr. Garcia during the struggle.

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I assume that since the guilty plea has been thrown out, he can still be tried for this crime. Is that correct? Double Jeopardy shouldn't apply because he wasn't tried the first time around.
By itsamazing (222), Southampton on Mar 16, 10 9:34 PM
yes. if you read the article it says "The vacating of the conviction means the case will now return to the Suffolk County Criminal Court system where it had been on the verge of trial. Jury selection was scheduled to begin on the day the plea was reached. The case will be on the calendar of Judge C. Randall Hinrichs this time around, and neither Mr. O’Brien nor Mr. Kamen said he expected to represent Mr. Santiago."

By fishy (91), East Hampton on Mar 17, 10 2:54 PM
and is mr. kuchtuk still operating a drug house in my neighborhood?????
By rabbit (65), watermill on Mar 18, 10 8:58 AM
Rabbit

look on the "white pages" on-line site;
there is a listing by that name;
By diogenes (57), westhampton on Mar 18, 10 10:51 AM
As the two were there in the commision of a felony, both are equally guilty of the killing and the shooting of the other resident.

And Allan, you've got to stop. This idiocy will kill you. Just stop, and help clean up the neighborhood.
By Lost Tribe (66), East Hampton on Mar 18, 10 6:40 PM
Here we go again.

For the appellate court to reverse a criminal conviction is a rare event IMO.

Add in the DEFENSE counsel:

"Suffolk County District Attorney Henry O’Brien, said this week that he did not think Judge Weber had been coercive in anyway,"

and you have a prescription for a strange situation IMO.

You can't make this stuff up!

Defense counsel says all is OK and the appellate court reverses -- very rare.

Maybe it is the ground ...more
By PBR (4947), Southampton on Mar 18, 10 6:54 PM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By rabbit (65), watermill on Mar 19, 10 9:05 AM
i am curious....what was inappropriate about my content?
By rabbit (65), watermill on Mar 22, 10 8:06 AM
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