BALLSTON SPA -- Saratoga County Court Judge James A. Murphy III has disqualified the Saratoga County District Attorney's Office from prosecuting Maria Lentini in her second trial on a charge that she left the scene of a fatal accident.
In a Jan. 11 decision, Murphy found "malfeasance" in an assistant district attorney's failure to report that he encountered and talked to a potential witness in the case in a bar in August, even though being in the bar was a violation of the witness' probation in a different case. The assistant district attorney was not identified.
The potential witness, Robert Walton, was also told by prosecutors at a Dec. 14 pre-trial meeting that he would not "get in trouble" for testifying at Lentini's second trial, which was then scheduled for Jan. 7 in County Court. It has since been postponed indefinitely.
Lentini, now 33, of Saratoga Springs, was convicted in a County Court jury trial in November 2016 of felony leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and was subsequently sentenced to up to four years in state prison.
She was driving north on an unlit section of Route 9 in Halfmoon in the early morning hours of Dec. 6, 2015, when she struck and killed Patrick Duff of Halfmoon, who was wearing dark clothing and walking in her lane. She was arrested because the incident was not reported to police for more than an hour, and during part of that time, she allegedly left the scene with her sister. She called several people, including Walton, before her sister finally called police.
Lentini remained free pending appeal, and in July a mid-level Appellate Division court vacated her conviction and ordered a new trial. The court found Murphy, who presided over the first trial, should have declared a mistrial because two witnesses -- one a sheriff's deputy -- testified that on the night of the crash, Lentini requested a lawyer be present before she spoke to police. Such testimony could prejudice jurors, the court found.
Murphy has named attorney Lee Kindlon of Albany as special prosecutor in the case, with access to the district attorney's staff and files. Kindlon, while best known as a defense attorney, is a former military prosecutor. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Walton was on probation for a 2017 felony driving while intoxicated conviction at the time he spoke with the assistant Saratoga County DA in the bar. His DWI case was handled by a special prosecutor because of his connection to the Lentini case.
One of the conditions of his probation was that he not be in bars -- something Murphy said the assistant district attorney should have realized and reported. A few days earlier, Walton and his attorney met with prosecutors, seeking to exchange information for an early end to his probation, Murphy wrote. Prosecutors rejected that proposal.
Murphy also wrote that prosecutors haven't made clear to either the court or Lentini's lawyer what "trouble" the December conversation referred to, but it appears Walton received a "benefit" from prosecutors by not having his August presence in the bar reported to his probation officer.
Based on that, Lentini's attorneys sought to disqualify the District Attorney's Office for misconduct, and Murphy agreed.
"The court finds that the pretrial activity of the prosecuting assistant district attorneys will render their continued prosecution of this case unfair, because their conduct raises a 'significant possibility that the prosecutions's pre-trial activity will be a material issue in this case,'" Murphy wrote.
District Attorney Karen A. Heggen acknowledged a mistake was made in dealing with Walton.
"I'm acknowledging that there was error here; we're not going to appeal the judge's decision because, in the end, what we want to see is justice for [victim] Patrick Duff and his family," Heggen said.