HUDSON — Michael Howard, the lawyer defending accused child sexual abuser Mohammed Ali, said the Columbia County District Attorney’s office did not provide necessary evidence at a people’s compliance conference Friday.
The district attorney’s office cited a New York state criminal procedure law that allows prosecutors to withhold identifying information of alleged sex abuse victims.
Mohammed Ali, of Hudson, was indicted Sept. 25 on first-degree sexual abuse, a class D felony.
On Aug. 12, Ali was charged with two counts of predatory sexual assault against a child, a class A-II felony; two counts of first-degree rape, a class B felony; first-degree course of sexual conduct against a child, a class B felony; second-degree course of sexual conduct against a child, a class D felony; and three counts of first-degree sex abuse, a class D felony.
Columbia County Judge Richard Koweek asked if Howard received necessary materials from prosecutors and Howard said he did not get videos of forensic interviews of the alleged victims, footage of the first and second alleged victims looking at a photo array of suspects and handwritten notes from the interviews.
Of the four forensic interviews, the last two were video-recorded, Howard said.
“I believe there’s individual items that I have not received,” Howard said during the conference. “The people have indicated there was not a forensic video interview of the first and second victims. I believe there is videotape of something called a forensic interview of the two subsequent alleged victims. I have not received those videos.”
Howard said at the proceeding his expert in forensic psychology, Dr. Jacqueline Bashkoff, of Albany, determined he could not prepare an appropriate defense for Ali without access to the recorded forensic interviews.
Howard also argued the forensic interviews must be done by someone who has participated in a multi-day training course and keeps up with relevant research on child interviewing.
Child forensic interviewers must be familiar with confirmation bias to reduce the possibility of unreliable or tainted interviews, Howard said.
“And they must show competence in culturally diverse populations and with individuals with cognitive challenges,” Howard said.
Bashkoff also advised the absence of videotaped interviews threatens due process, Howard said during the conference.
Koweek said he does not think the compliance conference was the appropriate time to talk about the videotapes, but Howard can submit an application requesting access to the footage.
Assistant District Attorney Krista Klein said the videotapes of the third and fourth alleged victims’ interviews and the videotapes of alleged victims looking at the photo array were withheld.
Klein cited a section of criminal law that permits prosecutors to withhold identifying information of sex abuse victims unless the court rules there is good cause.
Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka, who did not attend the conference, said the law Klein referred to was created in January and modified in the spring.
“Thankfully, at least with respect to sex abuse cases of this nature, we don’t have to automatically provide this information,” he said, referencing identities of victims.
Prior to January, prosecutors did not have to disclose identifying information of alleged victims until a jury was sworn in, Czajka said.
From January to April, the information had to be provided within 15 days of arraignment and since April, defendants need a court order to access identifying information in a sex abuse case like this one, Czajka said.
“I am very, very, much opposed to disclosure of any identifying information of survivors prior to trial,” Czajka said. “But I recognize the law is the law.”
There are situations where confidential evidence is selectively accessible to protect victims’ identities, Howard said at the conference.
“There have been cases where the tapes are turned over and the defense attorney and the expert are the only ones who can see them,” Howard said, adding this is usually done when the victims’ identities are not known.
After Howard files a notice of motion to compel discovery, prosecutors may respond before Koweek makes a determination.
Apart from the issue regarding Howard’s request, Koweek ruled the prosecution has made all preparations for trial.
The defendant’s compliance conference, where Koweek will decide if the defense has all preparations ready, will take place 9:15 a.m. Nov. 9.
Koweek told Ali he has the right to be present at every stage of the proceedings.
“If you’re not present, I will assume you’re voluntarily giving up the right to be present and I will continue the proceeding absent a valid excuse,” Koweek said. Ali agreed.
Madhu Mishra live-interpreted the proceeding from English to Bengali over Zoom for Ali.