If Lori Pettit Rieman isn’t in over her head as Cattaraugus County district attorney, she’s doing a very good job of pretending to be.
The prosecutor who took on the case of an Erie County inmate who died after rough treatment by jail workers has not only dragged her feet in the investigation, but treated a relative of the dead man – a grieving person – with utter disdain. If a prosecutor can’t deal professionally with people under stress, then a new work assignment is in order.
Rieman was given the case because of a conflict of interest within the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. Her charge was to investigate whether the death of Richard A. Metcalf Jr., an inmate of the Erie County Holding Center, was a crime committed by jail personnel.
That the death was a homicide was the blunt conclusion of the New York State Commission of Correction, which oversees jails and prisons. Discovering that it had been misled about the circumstances of Metcalf’s death – and for what innocent reason would that occur? – officials there matter-of-factly concluded that Metcalf was the victim of homicide and urged both state and federal prosecutors to investigate.
Rieman’s investigation, if it can be called that, has already been leisurely enough to take two potential charges off the table. Because of the agonizingly slow pace of her work, the five-year statute of limitations has now expired on the two counts some court observers saw as the most likely: manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
Of course, Rieman didn’t need to charge deputies with those, or any, crimes if the evidence didn’t support them. But she had an obligation to move swiftly enough to report her findings before the statute of limitations expired. Yet she refused to speak with the emergency room physician who examined Metcalf and she unaccountably cast doubt on the credibility of the state forensic pathologist who concluded Metcalf had been strangled.
These are serious people, yet Rieman said she would never call the pathologist, Dr. Michael Baden, to testify. And she refused to speak with Dr. Andrew R. Poreda, the emergency room physician who believes Metcalf died from asphyxia, not a heart attack as a past Erie County medical examiner concluded.
This, despite the fact that Poreda left telephone messages for her and even sent a registered letter asking to speak with her. Rieman defended that inaction, telling The News in October that she objects to any attempt to add to or change the statement Poreda gave the State Police when they investigated the homicide. But Poreda’s statement indicates police didn’t ask his opinion about the cause of death.
Altogether, her actions smack either of incompetence or willful neglect.
Add to that her response to the victim’s uncle, Paul Metcalf, who described himself to Reiman as an “optimistic patriot who believes in our system of law and justice.” Emails he sent suggest increasing frustration on his part regarding the pace and direction of the investigation, ultimately drawing a response from the prosecutor: “Please stop sending me your threatening emails,” and calling him “obviously ignorant” of her other accomplishments in the pursuit of justice.
But what about the pursuit of justice in the case of Metcalf? Is she intimidated about investigating Erie County jail deputies? Is she overwhelmed with her own cases? Is she just not especially interested? Perhaps there is a legitimate explanation for what otherwise looks like a failure of seriousness, but it’s hard to see what that would be.
When the Commission of Correction recommended a criminal investigation more than a year ago, it also asked for a federal civil rights probe of the event. If federal prosecutors haven’t already undertaken that investigation, they should get started. The public has been given no cause for confidence in whatever Rieman may conclude.