|Contact Henry Cassie|
Clinton Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 2001
Dannemora, NY 12929
|DOB: January 22, 1972|
|Henry Cassie's case data|
|State and County||New York, New York County (Manhattan)|
|Crime||Murder in the 2nd Degree § 125.25(3)|
|Date of Crime||February 26, 1994|
|Date of Arrest|
|Date of Conviction||June 21, 2001|
|Sentence||25 Years to Life|
|Age at the Date of Crime||22|
|Contributing Factors||False Confession, Perjury|
|Did DNA evidence contribute to the conviction?||No|
|Is there DNA evidence to test?||N/A|
This case lacks physical evidence implicating the prisoner. Henry Cassie’s indictment and conviction are solely based on his false confession to two Cold Case Squad detectives of the New York Police Department and the statement of a co-defendant, who is at large now. Cassie recanted his confession at trial. Here comes his story:
I am currently serving a sentence of 25 years to life for a murder I did not commit. I was convicted of second degree felony murder and sentenced on June 21, 2001. The murder took place on February 26, 1994, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in New York City. On the night in question, I was staying the night at a friend’s house in East New York, Brooklyn. At the time, I was living in Perry, Georgia, and on parole for a previous conviction. A couple of friends and I had decided to drive up to New York for the weekend to visit. This was on a Friday night, February 25, 1994, and we stayed at Kenneth Felder’s aunt’s house in Brooklyn. Throughout the entire weekend, we went shopping, spent time with Kenneth’s family, and we went to a few night clubs. During our stay, I never once went to Manhattan. I stayed in Brooklyn the entire weekend.
On Sunday night, February 27, 1994, we were driving around in the Brighton Beach area. One of the guys suggested that we rob a man and no one objected to it. I did not want to be part of the plan; however, I allowed peer pressure to reflect my poor decision. The robbery was foiled and we were apprehended and taken into custody approximately an hour later. I was transferred to Rikers Island and I remained there for a period of eight months, until I accepted a plea bargain from the District Attorney’s office. I was tired of fighting the case, and I knew I was wrong, and I was ready to accept responsibility for my actions.
I plead guilty to Armed Robbery and was sentenced to an indeterminate term of 2-6 years. I served two years in the New York State Department of Correctional Services (D.O.C.S.) custody, and was granted parole on my first appearance before the parole board. In March of 1996, I was released and my parole was transferred to the state of Georgia, so I could be near my family.
I was on parole for approximately three years, and was maintaining gainful employment, and striving to provide a better future for myself. I was in the process of investing in a fast-food franchise, and enrolling in college to obtain my bachelor’s degree. On January 3, 1999, my parole was revoked and I was taken into custody on a (technical) parole violation, which was an arrest for possession of marijuana.
When my parole officer arrived at the county jail, he told me the “real” reason he revoked my parole, it was because the N.Y.P.D. contacted him and told him I was a suspect in a robbery case. I assumed at the time that they preferred to question me while I was in custody, so they persuaded my parole officer into revoking my parole for the misdemeanor charge.
While I was in the Houston County Jail, two cold case detectives came down to Georgia and questioned me about the circumstances of the robbery; however, they never mentioned that a murder occurred, only that a robbery took place. They proceeded to show me pictures of the crime scene, and they said that they knew I was involved.
I told them the truth, that I had nothing to do with the robbery, and that I had not been there. The next day, my parole officer came to visit me at the county jail. He began by telling me the detectives wanted to speak to me again regarding the robbery. I explained to him that I already had told the detectives that I was not involved, and I was nowhere near the vicinity of the crime. He decided to bring me out to the parole office anyway, even though I informed him that I did not wish to speak to the detectives.
This second line of questioning, and interrogation took place in the Houston County Parole Office. I was brought in handcuffed to one of the conference rooms and left alone with the same N.Y.P.D. detectives. They proceeded to tell me I had been lying the day before, and I should just “Fess Up” and admit my guilt in the robbery. Again, they never mentioned the victim was murdered, only that he was robbed.
Then they informed me that an eyewitness identified me at the scene of the crime. They showed me a photo of a car that was at the crime scene with a bloody fingerprint on it. They said it matched my prints. I told them that it could not possibly be mine because I was not there. Then they advised me that the victim was in a coma, but he recovered and he was able to identify me. I could not believe this was happening. I told them from the beginning, that I was not there, and I had nothing to do with the crime, nor any knowledge of it. Finally, they said that my co-defendant from my last case, Kenneth Felder, confessed to the crime and implicated me in the robbery.
They played an audio cassette with Kenneth describing the details of the crime. To this very day, I still do not know why he implicated me for something that he knows I did not do! I was sitting there handcuffed in disbelief while listening to the audio tape of Kenneth, describing what he claims happened on the night in question. I hate to admit it, but I was scared to death, and nervous even though deep in my heart I know I am innocent. I felt completely hopeless. I have been through the system before, and I am well aware how Courts view defendants’ testimonies compared with those of a Law Enforcement Official’s. I figured it would be their word against mine, and without question their testimony would hold a lot more weight than mine as I am a convicted felon.
After hours of interrogation and threats, I finally admitted to being involved in the robbery, even though I had absolutely no involvement in it. I was scared and horrified at the thought of never being able to see my family. The trickery, deceit, and threats finally wore me down to the point that I was mentally, physically, and emotionally bankrupt. It was a mistake that I will regret the rest of my life, regardless of what happens, because I am innocent. I should have never told them “what they wanted to hear”: the detailed facts that they “spoon fed” me regarding the crime. The only way I knew the victim was stabbed during the commission of the crime is because they told me what happened and Kenneth relayed the facts on audio-tape.
After I had told them what they wanted to hear I was extradited to Rikers Island in New York to address the parole violation. At my final revocation hearing, it was determined that I had violated a condition of my parole, and I was given a one year sentence for the violation. I was sent to a facility to serve my violation.
Approximately three months later, the same detectives came to see me for more questions. They had my previous statement and told me the district attorney wanted more details. I honestly did not know what else to do because they already had my last statement and I thought it was hopeless to argue my innocence, so I waived my Miranda Rights and gave them a “more detailed statement.” I was subsequently indicted, re-arrested a few weeks later, and after I had finished serving my parole violation, I was brought back down to Rikers Island to address the murder charge in court.
At trial, I took the witness stand and denied any partic-ipation in the felony murder. I explained to the jury that I made the confessions out of fear, duress, and mental anguish. I also informed them that I was under extreme pressure from the detectives questioning me. It came down to an issue of credibility, the detectives’ word against mine. The jury chose to discredit my testimony, my account of the events, and the interrogations. I truly believe that they had me labeled guilty before they even heard one shred of evidence from my defense.
I have been dealing with this living nightmare for more than 10 years of my life. It is a heavy burden that I carry with me each and every day, but I believe with all of my heart that justice will prevail and the truth will come to light.
I do feel a great deal of sympathy for the victim’s family. My thoughts and prayers are with them on a daily basis. The reality is the real perpetrator of this heinous crime is still in society roaming the streets.
Procedural Case History
Defendant Henry Cassie is currently seeking to set aside his conviction, after a New York County Jury (Allen, J.) found him guilty of Murder in the second degree in violation of N.Y.S. Penal Law § 125.25 . Cassie was sentenced to an indeterminate term of 25 years to life. The prisoner’s judgment of conviction arose from the armed robbery of Dario Estrella on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The conviction of felony murder was predicated upon charges that the defendant, while acting in concert with two other co-defendants, caused the death of Dario Estrella by stabbing him and repeatedly slamming his head into the ground while engaged in the commission of the crime of robbery and in the course of such caused the death of the victm in violation of N.Y.S.P.L. 125.25 §(3).
The evidence adduced at trial basically consisted of defendant’s own admissions. At about 2:30 a.m. on February 26, 1994, he and two cohorts, Kenneth Felder and Travis Thomas, were driving around Upper Manhattan drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. After observing Estrella standing alone near 90th Street and West End Avenue, Travis Thomas suggested that they rob him. Henry Cassie allegedly parked the car. The three men exited the car and surrounded Estrella. Thomas confronted Estrella and demanded his money. Felder stood behind Estrella so he could not back up.
When Estrella raised his arm to brush off Thomas, Henry Cassie is said to have pulled out a knife and stabbed Estrella in the chest. Thomas pushed the victim down. Thomas and Felder searched Estrella’s pockets for money and removed his wallet. All three men then allegedly fled, leaving the fatally injured Estrella lying at the curb.
In response to a 911 call, police officers discovered Dario Estrella lying face up, wedged between the sidewalk curb and a car. Estrella appeared to be alive, but had head and chest wounds. Blood was gurgling from his mouth. A wallet was lying nearby. It contained a pay stub with Estrella’s name, but no money. Estrella was transported to a nearby hospital. He died later that day due to the injuries sustained during the robbery. Severe blunt force trauma to the head likely resulted from his head hitting the sidewalk and multiple stab wounds to the chest had perforated a lung.
Over four years later, in April of 1998, cold case squad detectives were assigned to investigate Estrella’s murder once again. The detectives conducted an investigation of the case, which included interviews with Kenneth Felder, Travis Thomas, and Henry Cassie. Defendant Cassie became a suspect through information given by one of his co-defendants: Kenneth Felder.
During the month of March of 1999, the detectives interrogated defendant Henry Cassie on two different occasions regarding Estrella’s murder. At that time, Cassie was incarcerated in the Houston County Jail in the State of Georgia for a parole violation. Cassie was extradited to New York where he faced additional incarceration for violating conditions of parole.
Three months after the accused was extradited to New York, he was sentenced to a determinate term of incarceration for a violation of his parole. While at the Riverview Correctional Facility, the same detectives of the Cold Case Homicide Squad harassed and interrogated Henry Cassie in regard to the murder of Dario Estrella again.
Shortly thereafter, in July of 1999, by New York County indictment number 4766/99, defendant was charged with two counts of murder in the second degree in violation to N.Y.S. Penal Law 125.12 §(1), intentional murder N.Y.S. Penal Law 125.25 §(3), felony murder, and one count of robbery in the first degree in violation of N.Y.S. Penal Law 160.15 §(3).
Following a suppression hearing held on February 27, 2001, the accused proceeded to trial before the Honorable Bruce and a jury of Cassie’s peers. During trial, a motion for a trial order of dismissal pursuant to C.P.L. § 290.10 was submitted to the court as to the counts of Intentional Murder and Felony Murder, and again at the conclusion of the State’s case.
The court denied the motion as to the Intentional Murder count, but reserved decision as to the Felony Murder count. After the presentation of evidence and summations, the jury was only instructed to review the two counts of Murder; Intentional and Felony Murder. During a charge conference, the court, on its own discretion and with the consent of the prosecution, dismissed the charge of robbery in the first degree, N.Y.S. Penal Law 160.15 §(3). On March 5, 2001, the jury acquitted defendant of Intentional Murder, but convicted him of Felony Murder.
On May 9, 2001, prior to sentencing, Henry Cassie moved pursuant to C.P.L. 330.30 to set aside the Felony Murder conviction. He argued that there was no proof that underlying robbery had taken place in order to corroborate his confession. He also argued that the trial court failed to adequately charge the jury upon the elements of robbery, the underlying felony in the felony murder charge.
The State opposed defendant’s C.P.L. 330.30 motion on June 5, 2001 and on June 18, 2001, the trial court denied the motion. The court ruled in regards to defense counsel’s motion stating that “Since defense counsel did not make a timely objection to the instructions as given the issue is not reserved as a matter of law (C.P.L. § 470.15). Therefore, it cannot be raised on a motion pursuant to C.P.L. § 330.30.” After the court’s ruling on June 21, 2001, the Cassie was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, and remanded to the custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services.
The prisoner then appealed from the judgment of conviction to the Appellate Division, First Department. In his appellate brief, Cassie argued that the trial evidence was insufficient to prove his guilt of felony murder, and that the jury’s verdict was against the weight of the evidence. He also contended that the court erred in its jury instruction on felony murder since it had failed to inform the jurors of the elements of robbery, the underlying felony.
Finally, appellant claimed that his trial counsel had rendered ineffective representation because he failed to inform the court of its omission. The State filed a brief addressing those claims. Henry Cassie then submitted a request to file a pro-se supplemental brief, which was denied. The Appellate Division unanimously affirmed petitioner’s conviction in an opinion dated December 14, 2004, People v. Cassie 13 A.D. 3d 142 (1st Dept.2004). Cassie sought permission to appeal from that affirmance of the judgment of conviction to the Court of Appeals. The State opposed that application and on April 7, 2005, leave to the Court of Appeals was denied by the Honorable Robert S. Smith, 4 N.Y. 3d 852 (2005).
On May 26, 2004, Henry Cassie filed a motion pursuant to C.P.L. § 440.10 to vacate the June 21, 2001 judgment of conviction in that motion. He asserted that the trial court’s failure to charge the jury on the elements of robbery, the underlying felony, denied petitioner a fair trial; that the verdict for felony murder was against the weight of the evidence; and that trial counsel was ineffective for “Cumulative Errors” over the course of the trial, including trial counsel’s failure to object to the court’s failure to charge the jury as to the elements of robbery, failure of trial counsel to request the suppression of the statements taken from petitioner due to Miranda violations, and for failing to request that the court charge the jury on a lesser included offense. The State opposed the motion and in a written opinion dated September 14, 2004 Justice Allen denied petitioner’s motion.
In his decision, Justice Allen stated that under C.P.L. § 440.10 (2)(B), the court must deny a motion to vacate judgment when the “Judgment is, at the time of the motion, appealable or pending on appeal, and sufficient facts appear on the record with respect to the ground or issue raised upon the motion to permit adequate review thereof upon such an appeal.”
By an application dated October 6, 2004, Henry Cassie sought permission to appeal to the Appellate Division, First Department, from the denial of the motion to vacate judgment. On November 12, 2004, the State opposed that application. On December 14, 2004, petitioner’s application was denied.
Henry Cassie sought relief from his petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus dated July 2, 2006, and filed July 21, 2006. He asserted three claims.
(1) First, he argued that since the robbery count was dismissed by the trial court before trial, his subsequent prosecution for felony murder arising out of that robbery subjected him to double jeopardy.
(2) Petitioner also advanced two ineffective assistance of counsel claims:
(a) The first is based on his trial counsel’s failure to object to the court’s omission of the elements of robbery from its jury instruction on felony murder, and
(b) the second is based on trial counsel’s failure to include in his suppression motion and at trial petitioner’s pre-arrest statements to the police taken in direct violation of his Miranda rights.
(3) Finally, petitioner argued that a fundamental and constitutional error was committed by the trial court in its instructions to the jury. He claimed that reversal is warranted where the court’s jury charge on the elements of felony murder omitted an essential element of the intent to commit the underlying felony of robbery. Such omission contributed to the jury’s improper finding where robbery has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to sustain a conviction of felony murder.
The State’s Case
At about 2:30 a.m. on February 26, 1994, Police Officer Joseph Delgado and George Reyes were on patrol in a marked police car in the 24th precinct (Delgado: 6-7). [Note: Parenthical page references are to the trial minutes.] In response to a radio call, the officers drove to 273 West 90th Street in Manhattan (Delgado:7-8). There, Dario Estrella was lying face-up, wedged between the sidewalk curb and a car. Estrella appeared to be alive, but had head and chest wounds, and blood gurgling from his mouth. A wallet was lying nearby. It contained a pay stub with Estrella’s name, but no currency. Delgado summoned an ambulance, which transported Estrella to St. Luke Hospital. Estrella died soon thereafter (Delgado:8-10,13). Crime Scene Unit Detectives photographed the area where Estrella had been found (Delgado:10-13).
That afternoon, Officer Delgado went to the medical exam-iner’s office and viewed Estrella’s body (Delgado: 13). The same day, Evelyn Deleon, Estrella’s sister, identified her brother’s body (Deleon:4-5).
Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, a forensic pathologist, was present during the autopsy of Estrella’s body (Flomenbaum: 15-16, 19-20). Estrella had suffered major blunt impact injuries to the right side of his forehead and cheek. Those injuries could have resulted from Estrella’s head being “smacked” to the ground with such force that it caused severe jarring and a lot of bleeding to the brain (Flomenbaum: 21, 23-24, 29).
Estrella had also sustained stab wounds on his head and chest, including a deep cut into the left torso, which hit a lung (Flomenbaum:21,26-29). Dr. Flomenbaum opined that the primary cause of Estrella’s death was the blow to the head, resulting in bleeding and injuries to his brain; and that the stab wound to the lung, which added to Estrella’s blood loss, contributed to his death. Dr. Flomenbaum stated that either wound was potentially fatal (Flomenbaum:31-32).
About four and a half years later, in September 1998, Sergeant Peter Nugnes and his partner, Detective Stefano Bracinni of the Cold Case Squad, were assigned to the unsolved Estrella homicide (Nugnes: 35-36, 93). Pursuant to their investigation, Nugnes and Bracinni traveled to Georgia, where they contacted Kenneth Felder, Arzal Jackson, Travis Thomas, Eric Weatherspoon, and defendant Henry Cassie (Nugnes:37-39). On March 1, 1999, Sgt. Nugnes spoke to Felder and Thomas. The next day, on March 2, 1999, Nugnes and Bracinni interviewed Cassie, who was then incarcerated for a parole violation (Nugnes:39-40,42,92). After identifying themselves, the detectives told him that they were “investigating a homicide” (Nugnes: 99-100).
In response to questioning, Cassie related that in February 1994, he had driven from Georgia to visit friends in Brooklyn, New York. Defendant noted that Felder, Jackson, Thomas, and Weatherspoon were his friends (Nugnes:41-42). Defendant said that he had previously lived on West 87th Street in Manhattan, but claimed when visiting in February 1994, that he had not left Brooklyn (Nugnes: 43-44, 92-93). The interview lasted 20 to 30 minutes (Nugnes: 93).
On March 3, 1999, Sergeant Nugnes and Detective Bracinni spoke to Jackson and again met with Henry Cassie (Nugnes: 44-45). Nugnes told Cassie that the information he had from other people differed from defendant’s version of events (Nugnes: 47). Cassie then admitted that in February of 1994, he had traveled with Felder and Thomas to Manhattan (Nugnes: 49). At that point, Nugnes advised the suspect of his Miranda Rights. Cassie agreed to answer questions and signed the Miranda Waiver (Nugnes: 49-54). Nugnes also showed him five photographs depicting the Estrella crime scene (Nugnes: 53, 97-98).
Cassie stated that, in February 1994, Felder, Thomas, and himself had traveled from Georgia to Brooklyn (Nugnes: 55-56). On the night of February 26, 1994, Cassie had driven the two men into Manhattan to West 87th Street to see his old neighborhood. At the corner of West 90th Street, Thomas spotted Estrella and said “Stop the car…we’re going to rob that man” (Nugnes 56-57). Cassie pulled over, and all three men got out and approached Estrella. Cassie was a few steps behind Thomas and Felder when Thomas produced a knife and stabbed Estrella. Cassie was “in shock” by what he had seen.
Afterwards, Cassie and the other two men returned to Brooklyn (Nugnes: 57-58). After giving his oral statement, the suspect wrote down what he had just related, and he and Nugnes signed the statement (Nugnes: 58-60). The entire interview had lasted about two and a quarter hours (Nugnes: 62, 93, 106). Nugnes made no threats or promises to induce defendant to talk or to sign his written statement (Nugnes: 62,102-103,106).
Cassie was returned to New York, and on June 9, 1999, Sergeant Nugnes and Detective Bracinni interviewed him (Nugnes: 67–69). Nugnes advised the accused of his Miranda rights, and Cassie said he would make a statement (Nugnes:70-73). Nugnes informed him of what he had learned during an exhaustive investigation since March 3rd was inconsistent with what Cassie had earlier related (Nugnes: 77).
Detective Bracinni then showed him a photograph depicting a white automobile with bloody hand prints on the door, which was parked in front of 273 West 90th Street.(Nugnes: 78, 94-95). The bloody prints were actually of “no value” when compared to Cassie’s, but Bracinni told the inmate that the prints partially matched his prints (Nugnes: 79, 94-96). Detective Bracinni also told him that a woman had seen Cassie at the time of the incident, but that was not true (Nugnes: 80-81, 96). Bracinni further said that Estrella had survived the attack, had awakened from his coma, and had identified defendant as the person responsible (Nugnes: 81-82, 96-97).
At that point, Cassie said that he wanted to tell the truth about what had happened (Nugnes: 82). He recounted that he had left Brooklyn and had traveled with Felder and Thomas to West 87th Street in Manhattan to look for his former friends (Nugnes:82-83). After not seeing any familiar faces, the three men bought alcohol and marijuana. They smoked the marijuana and continued driving around Upper Manhattan. At some point, they saw a man, who was later identified as Estrella, pacing back and forth at West 90th Street and West End Avenue. When Thomas indicated that this was the person they were going to rob, Cassie parked the car and the three men got out (Nugnes: 83).
All three men surrounded the victim in front of 273 West 90th Street (Nugnes: 83-84). Thomas demanded money and then grabbed Estrella. When Estrella raised his arm to brush off Thomas, Cassie pulled out a knife and stabbed Estrella in the chest (Nugnes: 84).
After his oral statement, Cassie wrote down what he had just related. After the statement was read back, both the accused and Sergeant Nugnes signed it (Nugnes: 84-87). No promises or threats were made to induce the inmate to make the statement (Nugnes: 91, 102-103, 108). The interview lasted about an hour and a half (Nugnes: 107).
(1) In substance, defendant’s handwritten statement related that, as defendant was driving Kenneth Felder and Travis Thomas around his old neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, all of a sudden the two men wanted him to stop (Nugnes; 61). Defendant did not want to be involved because he knew it was wrong, but they made him stop the car and get out. They then saw a man walking. Travis and Kenneth “curbed” the man and asked him for money. Travis pulled out a weapon and stabbed the man with it. Defendant was so scared that he did not know what to do. The man fell to the ground bleeding. Defendant wanted to help him, but was so nervous that he just froze. It had been on his conscience for so long it was eating him apart (Nugnes: 61).
The reason why he did not come forward and say anything was because he feared for his life. Felder and Thomas said they would come after him if he said anything. They knew where his family lived, and he did not want to put his family in danger. Defendant was sorry for the damage that this had caused. He was not thinking with a clear head. He was on antibiotics and pain medication at the time, but that was no excuse for his actions and he sincerely apologized (Nugnes: 61).
(2) In substance, defendant wrote that he, Kenneth Felder, Arzel Jackson and Travis Thomas traveled from Georgia to Brooklyn, New York for the weekend. On the night of “2/24/94”, after he, Felder, and Thomas had been riding around Brooklyn, defendant suggested going to his old Manhattan neighborhood to see some friends (Nugnes:87). The three men got some “weed” and beer and drove to Manhattan (Nugnes: 87). Not finding anyone, they kept riding around drinking beer and smoking “weed” (Nugnes 87-88).
Near Riverside Drive, they saw a man pacing back and forth outside of a building (Nugnes: 88). Thomas suggested that they rob the man because nobody was watching. At first, defendant refused because it was not the right thing to do, or the right place to do it, but Felder wanted to do it. Defendant felt like he was being pressured and also “had to be game”(Nugnes: 88). All three men approached and circled around the man. In “a very loud and violent manner,” Thomas asked the man for money. The man seemed to hesitate, but then acted like he was not scared, and took a step towards them, instead of backing up. Thomas grabbed the man and Felder stood right behind him so he could not back up. When the man raised his arm to brush off Thomas, defendant pulled out a knife and stabbed the man in the chest (Nugnes:88).
The man fell towards defendant and Thomas pushed down the victim (Nugnes:89). Then Thomas and Felder went into Estrella’s pockets looking for money. Defendant stood frozen for a minute, not realizing what had just happened. After Thomas and Felder finished searching the man, they ran to the car. Defendant ran behind them, still in shock as to what had just occurred. The three men got into the car and drove off. Thomas and Felder were in the front seat laughing about what had happened, but defendant stayed by himself in the back seat, wondering how he could have done such a thing (Nugnes:89).
Defendant could not “honestly” say whether he did it out of fear or self-defense because of the man’s physical actions (Nugnes:88-89). Defendant was so high and intoxicated that he definitely was not in the right state of mind, and was also on medication. However, defendant regretted his actions and that Thomas and Felder pressured him into doing something that he did not want to be a part of (Nugnes:88-89). Defendant prayed to God every night to forgive him for what he had done (Nugnes: 89).]
The Defendant’s Case
Henry Cassie grew up in New York City and received a diploma from Brooklyn Technical High School (Cassie: 112-113, 150). At the age of 21 years, Cassie and his mother moved to Georgia in 1993. He was a construction worker (Cassie 113). In 1994, Cassie was convicted of a felony (Cassie: 113).
In February 1994, he traveled with Kenneth Felder, Arzel Jackson, Larry Scott, and Travis Thomas from Georgia to New York (Cassie: 144-145, 147-149). They stayed with Linda Dinkins in Brooklyn (Cassie: 146). Cassie did not go to Manhattan and knew nothing about a robbery (Cassie: 117,144,180).
On March 2, 1999, Sergeant Nugnes and Detective Bracinni interviewed him in Georgia, where he was incarcerated on a parole violation (Cassie: 114-116,150). Bracinni showed Cassie photographs depicting a crime scene at the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the police officer asked if the suspect knew the area. Cassie replied “Yes,” because he had once lived on West 87th Street and Amsterdam Avenue (Cassie: 117,114,151,181-182).
Detective Bracinni then showed defendant a photograph of a car with a bloody handprint on it and asked whether it looked familiar. When Cassie said “No,” Braccini told him that the “fingerprints” were his and that he was a suspect in a February 1994 robbery. Cassie insisted that he knew nothing about it (Cassie: 117,152,160-161). The police kept showing him photographs of the crime scene, attempting to implicate him in the robbery.
They repeatedly asked whether Cassie had been in Manhattan and with whom, but defendant said that he was nowhere near the area and had no idea what they were talking about (Cassie: 118, 151-152).
Detective Bracinni then stated “We know you were there, we know you did it; you might as well just tell us you were there and that you did it.” Bracinni never mentioned that a man had been killed. He just said that he knew Cassie had been involved and that he should confess and get it over with (Cassie: 118-119). Cassie repeated that he did not know what Bracinni was talking about; that in February 1994, he had stayed in Brooklyn the whole time he was in New York (Cassie: 119). That interview lasted, at most, a half an hour (Cassie: 118).
The next day, March 3rd, the same two officers interviewed defendant in a parole office (Cassie: 120-122,150). Cassie was isolated from his parole officer and taken to a conference room where he was left alone with the two detectives. Detective Bracinni asked Cassie if he wanted to change what he had said the day before. The inmate maintained that what he had told them was the truth; that he had not been in the area and did not know anything about what had happened (Cassie:122). Brancinni again showed defendant the crime scene photographs, said that he should just “fess up,” and that it would be “easier for him” in the “long run.” Cassie was “stunned” and did not know what to say, but Bracinni was very persistent. The detective kept referring to the photograph with the bloody fingerprints and said that they were defendant’s (Cassie:122-123). Detective Bracinni also said that the robbery victim had come out of a coma and identified Cassie as the one who had stabbed him (Cassie:124-125,153,163,180).
Cassie insisted that he had been in Brooklyn the entire time he was in New York, had never gone to Manhattan, and did not know what the detective was talking about (Cassie:123,125). At that point, Detective Bracinni became very, very aggressive, very mean, saying over and over again,”Why don’t you just tell us what you did; why don’t you make it easy on yourself,” and “If you don’t tell us that you did it,” we are going to “throw” the book at you; we are going to make you take the complete rap for this”(Cassie: 125). Bracinni also told Cassie that Felder and Thomas had said that they had participated, but that Cassie was the “main guy” and had committed the assault.
When defendant asked to speak to Felder, Bracinni said that he could not because Felder was incarcerated. Then Bracinni pulled out a cassette recorder and began to play an audio tape. On the tape, Felder’s voice came on and started speaking about the night in question. Specifically, he stated that Cassie was the one who devised the plan to rob Estrella, that it was all defendant’s idea, and that he was also the one who assaulted Estrella. Bracinni shut off the cassette player and advised Cassie to confess so that he could be shown some leniency (Cassie: 125-126, 154-156). Defendant denied knowing what had happened, and said that whatever Felder and Thomas had reported, he had not been at the crime scene (Cassie:126).
Bracinni waved the photograph of the bloody handprint in defendant’s face and said “We got you. You know this is yours,” and that “it doesn’t make sense to hold out anymore” (Cassie:126-127,159-160).
Cassie was “completely shocked.” He felt helpless and trapped. Although he had nothing to do with the crime and had not even been there, he felt that he was going to be found guilty (Cassie: 1 27-1 28,1 53). Detective Bracinni added that if Cassie owned up to the crime, he would let the District Attorney’s Office know that the inmate had cooperated and they would be very lenient with him (Cassie:128). The detectives advised that the best thing defendant could do was to sign a confession, admitting he was involved, so that things would go easier for him. They would then make sure the court showed a lot of leniency and that the district attorney would know that he had cooperated (Cassie:129,159). Cassie did not know what to do. He felt that there was no way out (Cassie:128).
Defendant then was given his Miranda rights and signed the warnings card (Cassie:156-158). The detective gave him a pad and pencil, but Cassie said he could not write anything because he did not know what had happened. Detective Bracinni suggested that Cassie just fill in the basic details: that a man was robbed and assaulted, and that Felder and Thomas were with defendant at the time at West 90th Street and West End Avenue (Cassie: 129-130, 181-182). Cassie felt that if he said nothing and maintained his innocence, he would be found guilty, so he wrote out a statement (Cassie:130-132, 158).
The statement was not true. Cassie wrote what the detectives wanted to hear. Bracinni told him what details to include so that the statement would be accurate (Cassie: 130-131, 158-159, 162-163). Bracinni also suggested that defendant add an apology to show remorse for the crime that he had supposedly committed (Cassie: 132, 158-159). They read the statement back to him, said they were happy with it, and Cassie signed it (Cassie: 160). The interview had lasted about two hours (Cassie: 120).
On June 9, 1999, the same two detectives traveled upstate to interrogate Cassie at a correctional facility in Ogdensburg, New York, where he was serving time for a parole violation (Cassie: 115, 133, 150, 166). Detective Nugnes said that they had given his written statement to the district attorney, but the prosecutor had “ripped it up” and said it “wasn’t good enough” (Cassie:133,165,180-181). Nugnes told Cassie that the prosecutor wanted defendant to admit in a written statement that he was the “main guy” who had put everything together and assaulted the man (Cassie:134-135). Cassie thought the victim was still alive and did not know about the murder (Cassie: 114-115, 154).
Detective Nugnes told Cassie that there was another eye-witness who had identified him as being at the crime scene (Cassie:135-136). Cassie was “shocked” and “stunned” because he knew that he had not been there (Cassie:136). Detective Bracinni again showed him the photograph with the bloody print on the car and said that he matched the print.
The Detective repeated that an eye-witness had placed Cassie at the location, and that the victim, who had fully recovered had identified him at the crime scene (Cassie: 136). Bracinni warned that this was defendant’s “last chance.” If Cassie did not make a statement and “take the weight for the crime,” they were not going to “cut him any slack,” but would make sure that the judge gave him as much time as possible (Cassie: 137, 169).
Detective Bracinni advised Cassie to write a statement admitting that he was the “main guy” who had “put the whole thing together” and had stabbed the victim (Cassie: 138, 169-170). Cassie did not know what to think. He was upset because out of sheer hopelessness and with no way to prove his innocence, he had already given one false statement (Cassie: 138, 170). Cassie felt “trapped”, that he was being “railroaded,” and did not know what to say (Cassie: 139, 171).
Detective Nugnes again read Cassie his Miranda rights. Feeling “helpless” that he was going to be proven guilty and that the court would not believe the truth that he was not there, Cassie signed the Miranda card. Then, while Detective Bracinni told him exactly what to include in the statement, Cassie felt that his hand was forced and wrote the statement (Cassie: 139-141, 166-168, 173-175, 177). The interview lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes (Cassie: 132). About a few days later, Cassie was transferred to Rikers Island from an “Order to Produce” by the court and was arrested.
At trial, defendant denied any participation in the robbery and murder of Dario Estrella. He also denied ever being in the vicinity of West End Avenue and West 90th Street at the time of the murder (Cassie: 114, 141-142).
The State’s Rebuttal Case
In March 1999, Detectives Stefano Bracinni and Peter Nugnes, assigned to the Cold Case Squad, were investigating the murder of Dario Estrella (Bracinni: 184,196). The detectives went to Georgia, where they twice interviewed defendant, whom Bracinni identified at trial (Bracinni:184-185). During the March 2nd interview, Cassie was not shown any photographs, and no reference was made to any bloody fingerprints at the crime scene (Bracinni:186). The interview was rather brief, approximately 45 minutes in length. The detectives asked Cassie whether, in 1994, he had been in Manhattan. Cassie replied “No.” They also asked him if he knew some of the other men they had been interviewing, and Cassie acknowledged knowing some of them (Bracinni: 186, 196). Cassie also described the neighborhood where the crime had occurred (Bracinni: 188).
On March 3rd, detectives showed Cassie five photographs including one that depicted a bloody print on the side of a car (Bracinni: 187-188). Cassie stated he recognized the location depicted in the photographs and stated that he had been there in February of 1994 (Bracinni: 188). The detectives also told defendant that they had interviewed Kenneth Felder and Arzel Jackson and that there were “some inconsistencies.” Cassie then wrote a statement that differed from what he had said the previous day (Bracinni: 188-190, 205). Detective Bracinni did not dictate the statement to him, and none of the words in the statement were the detective’s (Bracinni: 189-190). The detectives did not tell Cassie that Estrella had been stabbed, give him any information about Estrella’s wounds, or say that Estrella’s head had been “severly traumatized” from being pounded into the ground (Bracinni: 190-191). The detectives had been talking with Cassie for about two hours prior to his writing the statement (Bracinni:199-201).
On June 9, 1999, the detectives met with Cassie a third time. During that interview, Detective Bracinni lied to defendant. The detective said that the victim had come out of a coma and identified Henry Cassie as the perpetrator of the crime; that the bloody fingerprints on the side of the car, as shown in the photograph, matched defendant’s by 80% and that a female witness had identified Cassie (Bracinni: 191-192, 197-198, 201-202). Bracinni still did not disclose the nature of Estrella’s injuries — the stabbing and the severe head trauma (Bracinni: 192). After Cassie was again given his Miranda warnings, he wrote out a statement that differed from the one he had made on March 3rd (Bracinni: 192-194). Bracinni did not dictate any of that statement and did not tell defendant what to include (Bracinni: 193-194). The interview lasted approximately two hours (Bracinni: 207).
Neither of the detectives had made any threats or promises to induce defendant to make his statements (Bracinni: 194-195, 201 ) They did not yell or scream at defendant or physically touch him during the interviews (Bracinni:195).
Favorable Issues to Prove Innocence
One important issue in Henry Cassie’s claim of innocence is that there was not adequate physical evidence adduced at trial to establish the validity and truthfulness of defendant’s statements. While it is well-established law that a defendant’s confession needs not be corroborated (C.P.L. 60.50), there still must exist some substantial proof or evidence to verify the nature of his actions. For example, if a suspect confesses to stabbing someone and the evidence used against him at trial shows the victim was shot, then his confession was obviously a false one. Or, if a suspect admits to committing arson by using gasoline and the evidence shows that the arson was committed by other means, then his confession is indeed untrue and must be deemed invalid.
According to the evidence used against Cassie at trial, the medical examiner, Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, testified that the blunt injuries were to the head on the right side of the face at the forehead and at the cheek area. There was also some trivial ones to the back of the hand. Dr. Flomenbaum testified that there were two separate occurrences causing two separate wounds to the head. His exact words were: “It appears as if there were two likely, two separate causing the injuries.” He continued to testify that the other injuries that were described during autopsy were mostly sharp injuries: two cut injuries in the area of the temporal region and one actually near the point of the ear, another cut wound about 3 inch long on the left side of the face, 2 more cut wounds on the left side of the face near the hairline, a cut wound on the back of one of the finger tips, and some more scraping on the back of the hands. He concluded his testimony by asserting that someone assisting the victim and taking him and actually smacking his head against the sidewalk would certainly provide enough force to account for these injuries.
It should also be noted that during his opening statement, the district attorney testified that the victim had been found with severe head trauma causing injuries to his brain and approximately five to eight stab wounds to the chest. In his closing summation, District Attorney Saracco stated to the jury that the victim’s head was repeatedly slammed to the ground.
At Cassie’s sentencing, the victim’s sister, Evelyn DeLeon, accused him of stabbing an unarmed man over 40 times including in his head and then finished the victim off by “bashing his head.”
Again, Saracco stated at sentencing that the victim’s head was physically “bashed” into the ground, which was the cause of death. Therefore, it would be safe to presume that the victim suffered multiple stab wounds to his head and chest, and was repeatedly slammed to the ground. This finding is hardly consistent with the Cassie’s statement, which was the prosecution’s case-in-chief at trial. According to Cassie’s testimony, he stated that he had stabbed the victim once in the chest and then Travis Thomas, his alleged co-defendant, pushed the victim to the ground.
The evidence adduced at trial does not support such a finding. The injuries suffered from the victim do not coincide with Cassie’s statement. Hence, it is likely that the defendant’s confession is an untrue and invalid one.
Henry Cassie’s false confession specifically stated that he was involved in an incident which occurred on (Thursday) February 24th, 1994. But the actual crime took place on (Saturday) February 26th, 1994, two days later. It can be shown from the evidence at trial that Cassie was not even in the State of New York on February 24th, and gives further inference to the fact, that his confession should have been deemed false.
Finally, Chad Busby was Cassie’s parole officer from the Houston County Office of Pardons and Parole in Warner Robins, Georgia. He should have been summoned to testify at both the Huntley Hearing, and at trial. This case was determined by an issue of credibility. Busby’s testimony would have been crucial to Cassie’s case in order to prove that the detectives from the Cold Case Squad used the defendant’s parole condition’s to circumvent his constitutional rights and “convert what is essentially a supervisory and regulatory program into a subterfuge for criminal investigations.” U.S. V Polito, 583 F.2d 48.
It is established that not every violation of parole conditions automatically leads to revocation. “A parolee will be counseled to abide by the conditions of parole, and the parole officer ordinarily does not take the steps to have parole revoked unless he thinks that the violations are serious and continuing so as to indicate that the parolee is not adjusting properly and cannot be counted on to avoid antisocial activity.” Morrissey V Brewer 92 S.Ct. 2593
Cassie’s parole was revoked for a misdemeanor marijuana possession. He informed his parole officer that the alleged marijuana was planted on him by state troopers and was in the process of fighting his case and proving his innocence. Defendant never plead guilty to this charge and eventually the case was dropped. Defendant was on parole for almost three years with no police contact, never violated any curfew, always maintained employment, and did not fail any urine-analysis tests. It was not until after N.Y.P.D. detectives contacted his parole officer about him being a suspect in a robbery that the parole officer used his discretion to revoke defendant’s parole so that the detectives could question him in custody.
“The Division of Parole must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a parolee has violated the terms of his parole. This burden is not satisfied unless there is a residuum of legal evidence to support a finding of guilt. Hearsay alone will not suffice.” Hilbourne v. Rodriguez, 547 N.Y.S.2d 740. Thus, Busby’s testimony was indeed vital to show whether the decision to revoke defendant’s parole and take him into custody “was influenced by, and was carried out for, an otherwise impermissible law enforcement function.” People v. Santos, 368 N.Y.S.2d 130.
If Busby’s testimony would have shown that the Cassie’s parole revocation was “instigated, initiated, directed, arranged, controlled and participated in by police” (Santos, 368 N.Y.S.2d 130), then defendant’s statements should have been suppressed.
“In a credibility contest, the testimony of neutral, disinterested witnesses is exceedingly important.” Williams v. Washington, 59 F.2d 673
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Autopsy Report (pdf, 13 pages)
February 26, 1994
Huntley Hearings are pretrial hearings in the State of New York to review the manner in which the police obtained statements from the defendant. Judges must find voluntariness beyond a reasonable doubt before a confession made to police can be submitted at trial. (People v. Huntley, 15 N.Y.2d 72 (1965); Jackson v. Denno (378 US 368))
Opening Statement by Defense Attorney Gary Sunden (pdf, 14 pages)
February 27, 2001
Evelyn Deleon’s Testimony (victim’s sister) (pdf, 4 pages)
February 28, 2001
Sergeant Joseph Delgado’s Testimony (pdf, 10 pages)
February 28, 2001
Dr. Mark Flomenbaum’s Testimony (medical examiner) (pdf, 18 pages)
February 28, 2001
Sergeant Joseph Peter Nugnes’ Testimony (pdf, 77 pages)
February 28 and March 1, 2001
Henry Cassie’s Testimony (pdf, 72 pages)
March 1, 2001
Detective Stefano Braccini’s Testimony (pdf, 25 pages)
March 1, 2001
Certificate of Appealability Denied (pdf, 1 page)
United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
July 27, 2009