There was applause but not surprise Thursday morning when Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita gathered his staff to tell them that he will run this fall for a seat on State Supreme Court.
Sedita’s almost-certain move to the bench has been accepted as fact in the courthouse for months.
The DA made it official less than two weeks before the Democrat and Republican judicial nominating conventions. Two state judgeships will be on the November ballot, and party leaders on both sides are believed to have agreed to cross endorse Sedita, a Democrat, and Emilio Colaiacovo, a Republican, for the two spots.
Sedita, in his second four-year term as district attorney, ran unopposed for re-election as district attorney in 2012 after he was cross-endorsed by both major parties.
Cross endorsements would guarantee both men’s election to 14-year terms, with an annual paycheck of $174,000. While sometimes criticized for excluding voters from deciding who gets elected, cross endorsements are common in judicial races.
Both Sedita and Colaiacovo were rated as “qualified” by the Erie County Bar Association, the lowest of its three positive rankings for judgeships.
Sedita was first was elected district attorney in 2008 after working as assistant DA for 20 years. Named outstanding prosecutor for 2013 by the New York State Bar Association, he oversaw the prosecution of Riccardo McCray, the “City Grill shooter,” and Muzzammil Hassan, who was convicted of second-degree murder in the beheading of his wife.
Sedita has gained strong supporters who point to the high conviction rates of his office, his right of prosecutorial discretion in the cases he takes on and declines, and his statewide stature as a former member of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on Public Corruption and former head of the District Attorneys Association of New York.
As president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, he has led efforts to change the way law enforcement agencies handle witnesses and crime suspects to protect against false identification and forced confessions. The association this year advocated for a bill that would require all interrogations to be electronically recorded, either by audio or video, and to make it less likely that investigators “tip off” witnesses on who to chose from a photo array of possible suspects.
Sedita said the changes could help eliminate misidentification, which he said is the No. 1 cause of wrongful convictions.
“I have said repeatedly, and some people haven’t liked it, that I believe that for a prosecutor the exoneration of the innocent is as important as the prosecution of the guilty,” Sedita said.
He also supported changes Cuomo advanced to make the grand jury process more transparent when police shootings are involved.
As district attorney, Sedita also has earned his share of critics who say that he shies away from tough cases, including those of Ronald “Todd” Epps and the cold case homicide of Patricia Rodriguez, a 21-year-old mother of two who was stabbed more than 100 times in 1979 in Lackawanna’s Holy Cross Cemetery.
Last month, Epps was effectively found guilty in federal court of killing Stacey Moss in 2009. State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office took up the Rodriguez case last year and won a conviction against her husband, Michael Rodriguez.
Sedita said when the Epps case came through his office in 2009, he felt the evidence wasn’t there to support a murder case and pointed out that the U.S. Attorney’s office took another five years to put its case together.
He said in the Rodriguez homicide, he already had met with the state attorney general’s office about taking over the case when a key witness finally came forward and made a successful prosecution possible.
“The common denominator is that the evidence was different when we had the cases,” Sedita said.
Sedita also has been criticized for his failure to prosecute alleged election law violations. In 2009, he fired an assistant district attorney who publicly called him out.
And in 2013, a grand jury declined to indict Gabriele P. Ballowe, the driver suspected in the hit-and-run death of Barry T. Moss. Sedita expressed misgivings about the evidence, but last month, Ballowe and her insurers agreed to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Moss’s family.
The district attorney makes no apologies, saying he is a stickler for applying the law rather than emotion to each case.
“Our job is not to rubber stamp arrests; if it was, we would be a police state.
He added that he takes each indictment seriously.
“A grand jury indictment to me is not merely an accusation,” Sedita said. “It is a solemn representation to the court and the public that I can prove in a court of law each and every count of the indictment.”
He noted that, when he was first elected, the public had two main complaints with how the district attorney’s office had been operating.
“No. 1, that people were being wrongly convicted, in my opinion, because they were being wrongly arrested and wrongly indicted,” he said. “No. 2 was that too many cases were being plea-bargained to lesser offenses.”
After he took office, he implemented a no-plea policy under which defendants are not able to plead to a lesser charge after an indictment.
Sedita said Thursday morning that he is proud of successfully prosecuting more than 10,000 felony cases during his tenure as DA and is equally proud of helping to exonerate more than 300 innocent people before trial.
“The suggestion that I’m soft on crime is professionally and personally insulting,” Sedita said. “On the other hand, we are not perfect. There are cases where we can get it wrong and there are cases where we are overcautious – not many but some. But I would much rather have an overcautious prosecutor than an overzealous prosecutor, because an overzealous prosecutor is dangerous.”
“I think the key to justice is fairness.”
Assuming he is elected, the DA will be following in the footsteps of his father, Frank A. “Chickie” Sedita Jr., who also was a State Supreme Court judge. The DA’s grandfather, Frank Sr., was mayor of Buffalo in the 1960s.