WEIGHING IN – As a top attorney in the Albany County Public Defender’s Office, Peter Lynch was in charge of assigning cases. Indictments would come down and Lynch, who worked in the public defender’s office after graduating from Albany Law School in 1979 until 2009, would dole out charges to the roster of attorneys.
More often than not, Lynch placed the most heinous crimes on his own caseload.
“The ones with the most violent allegations he ended up with,” said retired state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi, who worked alongside Lynch in the public defender’s office in the 1980s and early ’90s. “You couldn’t talk him out of it.”
Perhaps, then, it was no surprise that as a state Supreme Court justice himself, Lynch ended up presiding over the Schoharie limo trial, which came more than four years after one of the most tragic events this region has ever experienced.
Without Lynch, this case would have been a done deal last year. Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery and defense attorney Lee Kindlon had agreed in September 2021 to a plea agreement that included no jail time for Nauman Hussain, the operator of Prestige Limousine.
To so many, it was too lenient of a sentence for a man responsible for 20 deaths.
Lynch, who’d been given the case previously assigned to retired Schoharie County Court Judge George Bartlett III, agreed.
In August 2022, Lynch determined there were issues with probation, and he remained bothered by the fact that a crumpled state Department of Transportation out-of-service sticker found in Hussain’s personal vehicle appeared to show the operator neglected faults with the doomed stretched 2001 Ford Excursion SUV.
So Lynch tossed out the deal.
Albany County Public Defender Stephen Herrick, who has crossed paths with Lynch over the years as a judge and attorney, called Lynch’s 2022 decision “daringly brilliant.”
Lynch gave Hussain an ultimatum: take a roughly 1-to-4-year prison sentence or go to trial.
Two weeks ago, a jury found Hussain guilty of 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter for his role in causing the 20 deaths in the Oct. 6, 2018, crash. On Wednesday, Lynch sentenced the former limo company operator to a prison term of no shorter than 5 years and no longer than 15 years — the maximum sentence.
During Wednesday’s sentencing, Lynch put his stamp on a case with which he is now inextricably linked.
The judge, who declined an interview request because of an already-filed appeal, glowered at Hussain while reading the concurrent sentences attached to each of the victims. Lynch’s stern tone Wednesday echoed the ire he displayed while tossing out the plea deal last year.
Writing for New York Magazine following this month’s verdict, Ben Ryder Howe described Lynch’s 2022 decision this way:
“A lantern-jawed 65-year-old known as a maverick, Lynch had inherited the case from his colleague who a year before had sobbed before the families of the crash victims as he approved the no-prison deal and subsequently retired,” Howe wrote. “Lynch was supposed to be handling the final administrative motions of the plea when, in a Zeussian fit of rage, he tossed out the deal.”
Albany County’s public defender told me Lynch’s decision was noteworthy, bordering on historic.
“It’s a high-ranking decision on his part,” Herrick said of the ruling made by Lynch, a Union College graduate. “I was surprised, but, again, going back to his work ethic, he’ll take the high road, even if the high road is bumpy.”
Families of the victims Wednesday expressed their appreciation for Lynch’s courage.
“We can’t say enough about Judge Lynch. It could have ended very unsatisfactorily if we had left it where it was,” said Jill Richardson-Perez, mother of Matthew Coons. “This has been huge that it’s turned out this way.”
While not unprecedented, Lynch’s decision to tear up a negotiated plea deal was highly unusual, according to Vincent Bonventre, the Justice Robert H. Jackson Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School.
“It’s not that it’s unheard of, but it’s extremely uncommon,” Bonventre told me. Typically, the sides have either already run the terms of a deal past the judge, Bonventre said, or they’re at least “pretty damn sure what the judge is going to accept.”
In this case, attorneys on both sides underestimated who they were dealing with in Lynch.
Likely shaped by his time defending indigent clients facing serious allegations in Albany County, Lynch clearly had a strong vision of what it would take to arrive at justice following one of the country’s deadliest motor-vehicle crashes in recent memory.
“I think he was very comfortable becoming a judge because of his extensive experience. He’s up for the challenge,” said Teresi, who knows a thing or two about presiding over high-profile cases. Teresi was the judge in the infamous Amadou Diallo case, in which a young immigrant died after being shot by New York City police in the late 1990s. “His decisions over the years, whether you agree with them or not, have been on the law and supported by the law.”
Lynch served as an Albany County Court judge from 2013 to 2018, prior to becoming a state Supreme Court justice in 2019.
Despite the leanings Lynch displayed in tossing out the 2021 plea deal — a decision that was backed up on appeal — the judge was fair throughout the recent trial. For instance, he did not allow the prosecution to call days’ worth of emotional testimony from victims’ families. And as the Times Union detailed this week, the prosecution had much more on Hussain’s brushes with the law, but Lynch denied that background from being brought up in front of the jury.
The result was a well-run proceeding in a case that the defendant’s attorney said has no doubt been permanently shaped by Lynch.
Asked if he thought Hussain would be sitting in his cell wishing the case had never left Judge Bartlett’s hands, Kindlon said:
“Things happen for a reason. There’s nothing we can do. We had Judge Lynch here and we’ll move forward.”
At one point during Wednesday’s sentencing, as families of victims talked about weddings never held and babies never born, the lights at the front of the courtroom went dark. With bulbs shining in the back and the sun streaming through the blinds, Lynch assured the packed courtroom the proceeding could continue.
Guards examined the wall switch and then the bulbs buzzed overhead.
Slowly, the lights above Lynch brightened.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.