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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Retired Wayne Circuit Judge Heading to Trial as an Accused Defendant

It remains one of the biggest cocaine busts in Michigan history. Over 100-pounds were seized by the Inkster Police Department in early-2005. So much cocaine, it literally stunk-up a courtroom in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice; Judge Mary Waterstone's courtroom.

The case was so huge, Judge Waterstone feared her courtroom, and the cast of characters surrounding it, would be overwhelmed. Her instincts were correct as the case has gone South for everyone.

Fast-forward 6-years. Judge Waterstone, the former Assistant Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney, and the Inkster police detective in charge of the original case are heading to trial next month on perjury-related felony charges of their own before Wayne Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny.

The original cocaine distribution charges alarmed now-retired Judge Waterstone. In the ensuing investigation which engulfed her, Judge Waterstone has gone on record stating the assistant prosecutor was in way over her head, that she didn't trust the drug dealers' high-profile attorney, that the case should have been charged in federal court, she feared for her own safety and for the safety of her staff, and she feared the witness-for-the-prosecution (a paid confidential police informant) would wind-up dead.

Alexander Aceval and Ricardo Pena were jury-tried on possession and distribution charges related to the massive cocaine haul. During trial, Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Karen Plants sought an ex-parte meeting with Judge Waterstone, advising the judge that her police witnesses were lying to the jury.

The mechanics of the bust involved the informant, while in touch with the Inkster Police, transporting the cocaine from Aceval's "J Dub" bar in Riverview, with Aceval following in his own vehicle. Police took-down both vehicles but did not charge their informant. At Aceval's trial, the police apparently provided false testimony as to whether they knew or had been in contact with their informant.  Nor was the jury told that the informant was to receive a 10% commission from the forfeited funds generated in the bust upon Aceval's conviction.

Hearings had been conducted (in camera) at the request of Aceval's attorney seeking the identity of the police informant. Judge Waterstone, confident that an informant did exist, ruled that the identity of the informant was an issue that could not be raised at trial before the jury.

When she learned of the officers' perjured testimony, Waterstone says she faced the dilemma of protecting the informant's life; believing the defendant's attorney, James Feinberg, could not be trusted with such information.

Around the time of Aceval's trial, attorney Feinberg was making headlines elsewhere, representing one of the most notorious drug gangs in Detroit history; the so-called "Black Mafia Family". Once the Aceval trial got underway, Judge Waterstone observed that attorney Feinberg's obvious strategy was to simply ignore her order regarding the confidential informant's identity, and pursue a line of questioning designed to put the police witnesses "on the spot" relative to their informant.

Perplexed by the law enforcement perjury, with death threats lodged in the case from the outset, the prosecutor (with Waterstone informally kept in the loop) consulted with the Wayne County Prosecutor's renowned appellate-chief, Timothy Baughman, who recommended using a separate sealed record of the prosecutor advising the judge on the particulars of the perjured testimony, then continue with the trial.

Both the judge and the prosecutor are now second-guessing that decision as they head into their own trial(s). Ironically, Judge Waterstone subsequently lamented to investigators that rather than follow Baughman's suggestion to continue with the trial, she wished that she had consulted with fellow-judge Tim Kenny, who is now presiding over her trial and could ultimately sit in judgment of his former colleague on the bench.

When Judge Waterstone stepped-off the case, her successor, Judge Vera Massey Jones, un-sealed the in camera hearing transcripts which revealed the prosecutor's decision not to object to known perjured police testimony to avoid "telegraphing" the informant's identity.  Judge Waterstone endorsed the decision, stating: "I think the CI (informant) is in grave danger.  I'm very concerned about his identity being found-out."

In the meantime, Pena was jury-convicted and Aceval's initial trial resulted in a hung-jury before Waterstone. Aceval's second trial ended when he pled guilty to possession of cocaine with the intent to deliver.  He was sentenced by Judge Vera Massey Jones to 10 to 15 years prison.

Aceval appealed his guilty plea conviction which was affirmed by the Michigan Supreme Court just last December.  Of note in the Supreme Court's decision, former Justice Maura Corrigan declined to take part in the case, indicating that she may be called as a character witness on Judge Waterstone's behalf.

The case against Waterstone, the prosecutor and the cops is being prosecuted by the Michigan Attorney General due to the obvious connections with the Wayne County Prosecutor's office.  Last Friday, more than twenty pre-trial evidentiary motions were argued before Judge Kenny in the lead-up to the trial, scheduled (firmly) for March.

This case impugns the very integrity of our criminal justice system.  The final result will not be clear until all the dust from the trial and subsequent appeals finally settles.

For our part, we will convey the significant developments in the case in this blog; stay tuned.

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