Schenectady County

Schenectady murder-suicide reveals DA, police oversight flaws

Eight days before he killed his girlfriend and then himself, a Schenectady man was freed from police

Eight days before he killed his girlfriend and then himself, a Schenectady man was freed from police custody, possibly in violation of a policy in domestic violence cases requiring that suspects be locked up until they appear before a judge.

Based on Gazette interviews of officials, a review of court documents and an audiotape of Ramcumar Bandhoo’s appearance in City Court, it appears a series of missteps and oversights led to his premature release from custody on Feb. 15 and the issuance of a less-restrictive order of protection than had been requested by the victim.

Bandhoo, 38, was in police custody after his girlfriend, 47-year-old Rafeena Rahaman, told police he put a knife to her throat and held her against her will. On the afternoon of Feb. 23, police said he again put a knife to her throat — this time killing her — then hanged himself.

The case is now the subject of internal investigations in both the Police Department and the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office to determine if rules were violated or whether policies should be changed.

The investigations seek to learn how and why Bandhoo was released on a simple appearance ticket, with no bail set, and how a less-restrictive order of protection was requested by the prosecution in court when the victim asked for a full stay-away order.

District Attorney Robert Carney has ordered and already received results of a preliminary investigation into what happened with his office.

Review under way

Police confirmed they are doing their own investigation. Among other questions, they want to know whether a 15-year-old department policy against freeing suspects in domestic violence cases before arraignment was violated. A department spokesman said that despite the policy, exceptions have been made in the past.

Carney, meanwhile, said changes need to be made.

“This should be a wake-up call that we need to look at how we treat victims and do as much as we can for them,” Carney said.

“I’m not saying that if anything had been done differently it would have kept her alive, but we can’t look at this situation and say that we did everything we could have.”

Police department spokesman Lt. Mark McCracken said his department is looking into both the initial arrest of Bandhoo on Feb. 15 and the response to the murder-suicide as part of a standard review.

“We’ll certainly take a look at the charges to make sure they were appropriate charges levied, compared to the fact pattern that we knew at the time — not what we may know now, but what we knew at the time,” McCracken said, “and then we’ll take a look at how it was handled to make sure that everything was done in accordance with applicable regulations and laws.”

A specific area police are looking at, McCracken said Wednesday, is whether a departmental policy on appearance tickets and domestic violence cases was violated.

Both Bandhoo’s release status and the lesser order of protection have drawn criticism from an advocate for victims of domestic violence. Carole Merrill-Mazurek, director of women’s services for the YWCA, has questioned how an individual accused of putting a knife to a woman’s throat could have been released without bail being set. She has also criticized how the victim’s request for a full stay-away order of protection wasn’t honored.

From the police perspective, the case of Rafeena Rahaman and Bandhoo, her eventual killer, began at about noon on Feb. 15, inside 6 Mynderse St., the house she had owned since October 2008. It was also the house that Bandhoo listed as his address.

There, her boyfriend pulled out a knife, she told police, and put it to her throat.

“You won’t be able to call the police,” Bandhoo told her, according to papers filed in court.

Bandhoo held her for a time, but she eventually freed herself. The mother of three grown children who neighbors described as sweet and hardworking, Rahaman ran barefoot and without a jacket to a neighbor to summon authorities.

Bandhoo fled. But just after 4 p.m. police spotted him about a mile away, at the corner of Albany and Elm streets, and arrested him.

The formal charges were second-degree menacing and second-degree unlawful imprisonment, both misdemeanors and both considered domestic violence.

The Schenectady Police Department has a long-standing policy in such cases, McCracken said. The policy states that in a domestic violence case an appearance ticket “shall not be issued, nor shall bail be offered.” That means the suspect would be held in police custody until the suspect went before a judge in court.

But, McCracken said, “we have made exceptions for operational needs.”

McCracken explained that an “operational need” generally would be staffing related — such as when officers are needed to watch prisoners at a hospital, or if the officer that would be watching prisoners is needed on the street.

In cases where that exception exists, supervisors contact City Court judges and approve the appearance ticket through them. If the judge declines, the suspect remains in custody and the officer remains watching over him, McCracken said.

“The department is investigating whether or not such an operational need existed at the time that the appearance ticket was issued,” McCracken said. Bandhoo had no known criminal history.

City Court role

Regarding the conversation with the judge, McCracken said that is done through a supervisor. In the case of Bandhoo, that supervisor spoke with City Court Judge Guido Loyola, who approved the appearance ticket, McCracken said.

McCracken, though, did not know what was explained to Loyola in requesting the appearance ticket — whether that explanation consisted of the charges or the underlying accusations that Bandhoo put a knife to the woman’s throat.

Loyola could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The end result, though, was Bandhoo walked out of the Schenectady Police Department without posting any bail hours after he was arrested.

A state Office of Court Administration spokesman on Wednesday said that no judge has any authority to release someone in such a circumstance. Barring an arraignment before the judge, that authority rests solely with the police department.

“While they may have called,” spokesman David Bookstaver said, “the final decision on what to do with an arrest is not up to the court, but up to the police department, as there is no pending case at that time that the court has any statutory authority to address.”

As with any domestic violence case, McCracken said, officers offer the victim safe haven at a shelter. Rahaman accepted that offer for the night, he said.

Bandhoo’s appearance ticket required him to return for his formal arraignment the next morning, Feb. 16. He did so, speaking quietly and politely in brief responses captured during the proceedings on the court audio system.

Judge Matthew Sypniewski can be heard on the recording pointing out the public defender, Graham McNamara, who would represent Bandhoo. The judge also notes the paperwork containing the complaints against Bandhoo, passing copies to the defense. The prosecutor in court was Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hughes, Carney said, though her voice is not heard on the recording.

McNamara waived a formal reading of the accusations, entering a plea of not guilty. The waiving of the formal reading is a standard practice.

“The DA’s requesting a refrain order,” Sypniewski continued a short time later. “Any problem with that?”

The defense replied there wasn’t.

The basis for that prosecution request, though, now appears flawed, Carney acknowledged.

A “refrain from” order means the victim and suspect could be in the same room, but the suspect would face a separate contempt charge if he committed a new crime against the victim.

The victim, though, had told police that she wanted a more stringent “stay-away” order of protection. That was noted clearly in one of the two charging documents, though they were not read in court.

A full stay-away order bars any contact between the suspect or the victim, physical or otherwise.

The district attorney’s office preliminary investigation traced the discrepancy between the formal request from prosecutors and the victim’s wishes to the underlying incident report and standard practices.

Such requests from prosecutors are prepared ahead of time by the office’s victims’ advocate, following a review of the more-detailed incident report. In Bandhoo’s case, there is no mention of an order of protection request in the text of incident report, Carney said. There is also no formal box to check.

“They didn’t see a request, but filled one out anyway,” Carney said. “They filled out a ‘refrain from,’ not realizing the victim had told the officer she wanted a full stay-away.”

While the charging document that included that request is available to them, the documents are kept in the judge’s file, in a separate place.

“Apparently, neither the judge nor the [assistant district attorney] noticed that line,” Carney said.

Whether either noticed it is not evident on the court recording. If Sypniewski spotted it, he didn’t ask in court for a clarification.

Contacted Wednesday, Sypniewski referred comment to the OCA’s Bookstaver.

Bookstaver said that even if Sypniewski did notice the checked box, it’s not the judge’s place to question the prosecution’s request.

“The judge decides what is put in front of them,” Bookstaver said, “not hypotheticals. In this case, the judge was asked for a refrain order and that’s what the judge had to decide.”

Communication critical

Carney said more needs to be done to convey the victim’s wishes and implement them.

“I think what we have to do is revisit the procedure for how information is communicated to us from the police about victim requests,” Carney said. “I would like to see it answered in both the incident report and accusatory instruments.”

Carney said it may also be wise to ask for a full stay-away order until the victim can communicate wishes otherwise. Unlike Rahaman, victims often don’t want a full stay-away order, Carney noted.

Carney also said his office may need to revisit its policy on bail, requesting bail if the case warrants it, even if a defendant is already released on an appearance ticket.

With Bandhoo returning to court Feb. 16 as instructed, the bail issue was not revisited at the appearance.

The entire court appearance that morning lasted 2 minutes, 30 seconds.

It ended with Sypniewski explaining the consequences should Bandhoo violate the “refrain from” order of protection.

“Make sure you comply with that order,” Sypniewski told the defendant, according to the audio. “If you get rearrested or commit any new offense in violation of that order, I’m going to remand you and set high bail. Do you understand?”

Bandhoo responded that he did. “Yes. Thank you,” Bandhoo says.

Bandhoo’s date to return to court was also set. He was scheduled to return this morning.

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