“Your Honor, you just made yourself a witness!” exclaimed defense attorney Harold Baker in a Brooklyn courtroom in the summer of 2017.
After excusing the jury, Judge Neil Jon Firetog told Baker he held him in contempt of court. “It’s either $1,000 a day or jail time,” Firetog said.
“I’m going to jail,” Baker replied.
Firetog ordered court officers to handcuff Baker and then place him in a holding cell next to his client, Bryan Aponte. Baker, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, called another veteran courthouse attorney who came and resolved the dispute, allowing Baker to complete the trial.
The jury found Aponte guilty of a high-profile 2015 murder in East Williamsburg, and Firetog sentenced Aponte, then 22, to 33 years to life. But last week, a four-judge appeals panel unanimously overturned the conviction, finding multiple issues with Judge Firetog’s handling of the trial.
“I was convinced that this one would be reversed,” Baker told the Independent, adding that Firetog’s behavior was repeatedly “inappropriate”. As to why he chose jail time over a fine, Baker explains that as a court-appointed 18B attorney, “I was only getting $75 an hour, so I wasn’t going to pay thousand dollars.”
The fact that Baker was paid for his time in Firetog Prison only adds to the absurdity of the incident.
As the appeal decision explains, at trial Baker presented a “defense of misidentification,” arguing that Aponte’s accomplice, Ryan Cruzado, fired the shots that killed Michael Matusiak, a 53-year-old steelworker, and seriously injured a 13-year-old boy. girl on the way to school. Although Cruzado pleaded guilty to the obstruction of prosecution charge, he did not testify at Aponte’s trial.
During the trial, Baker says, Brooklyn ADA Howard Jackson sought to block any testimony regarding physical similarities between Aponte and Cruzado. And Judge Firetog sided with the prosecution every time. At one point, Firetog informed the jury that there was no similarity between the two suspects, leading Baker to call Firetog a “witness” and set off the fireworks.
Appeals judges criticized Firetog’s many actions during the trial, arguing that he appeared to be an “advocate” for the prosecution. According to the decision, on several occasions during Baker’s closing argument, Judge Firetog referred to a “sustained objection” despite the absence of “any real objection raised by the people.”
As Baker recalls, “not only did Judge Firetog interrupt me, which was extremely frustrating, but he was also making comments prejudicial to the jury and infringing on my client’s right to a fair trial.”
As another defense attorney who has handled cases in the Firetog courtroom puts it, “It was like facing off against two prosecutors.” Although Firetog retired at the end of 2017, as the Independent reported, the close ties between judges and Brooklyn prosecutors continue to hurt defendants.
Appeals judges ordered a new trial for Aponte. Given the significance of the case — it unfolded during the 2017 primary race for Brooklyn district attorney, with sentencing announced less than two weeks before Election Day — it seems likely that the Eric Gonzalez’s office will retry (rather than drop) the case.
If there were to be a new trial, it is hoped that the judge will at least try to remain neutral.