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Cattaraugus DA criticized for dismissals over ‘failure to prosecute’

OLEAN – Cattaraugus County’s public defender contends that District Attorney Lori Rieman has been slow to prosecute some cases, allowing defendants to go free.

“It seems we have had an extraordinarily high number of cases dismissed for failure to prosecute,” said Mark S. Williams, who intends to challenge Rieman for the Republican nomination to the post this year.

Since taking office four years ago, Rieman has had her successes in court, including the closure of a 14-year-old cold-case murder.

But Williams says his office has found more than 70 cases that have exceeded their legal time limits, resulting in dismissal.

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office questions Williams’ statistics.

“The number is inaccurate,” the spokesman said. “It hasn’t been 70 cases, and each had valid reasons for not prosecuting. You also have to keep in mind the some 6,000 cases the office has tried since she has taken office.”

Prosecution attorneys have to prioritize what they bring to court, Williams said, calculating which cases deserve higher-level attention. Those cases are often the ones dealing with crimes against children, drugs and violence. These felonious crimes must be presented to a grand jury within six months.

That does not mean the case is fully ready, but, when given a date, the case will be fully prepared to begin at that time. The process is part of the right of the accused to a speedy trial, Williams said.

Some of the cases Williams is citing are sexual in nature. Others involve high-level drug charges. According to his office, some of the cases were a mere two days beyond the limit. Others exceeded 400 days.

“The whole aim of the criminal justice system is to do justice,” he said. “That just isn’t happening. Everyone in the Public Defender’s Office works to make sure the system works as it is supposed to. If our client is guilty, I will present what I can, but the system needs to do its job. It just isn’t happening right now.”

One of the cases that has been dismissed on timeliness grounds involves a sexual assault of two children younger than 13 by a family friend, Williams said. Under law, he said, he had to move for dismissal because the case was over the six-month time limit for indictment by two days.

Those children, once the case was dismissed and sealed, were no longer able to access help that victims of those crimes may be able to get; they were no longer victims in the eyes of the law.

“I think the district attorney has a moral obligation to these victims,” Williams said. “It’s about healing and getting the services you need.

Rieman responded in a written statement: “Occasionally, an arrest is made in a case where there is a victim who changes his or her mind and refuses to testify. Unfortunately, this is common in domestic violence cases and cases which involve family members. If the complaining witness refuses to testify, there is not a lot that my office can do with the case.”