Judge Orders Probe Into NY Atty's Secret Courtroom Meeting

By Marco Poggio | March 8, 2024, 4:57 PM EST ·

A New York court will look into whether a secret meeting last year between the local attorney representing a man charged with murder and the law clerk for the judge trying his case amounted to an ethical violation and possibly infringed the man's constitutional right to a fair trial, attorneys told Law360 Friday.

Gregory Thayer was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years in October for shooting his best friend to death after a night of booze and drugs in 2021.

But days after the guilty verdict in May, Thayer's lead attorney, Robert C. Gottlieb, found out that a local attorney he had hired as co-counsel had kept him in the dark about an ex parte meeting he had with the clerk working for the judge in the case, Bryan Rounds, inside an empty courtroom in Kingston, New York, in which the defense strategy was discussed.

On Thursday, New York Supreme Court Justice Roger D. McDonough, who is presiding over the case following Justice Rounds' recusal, ordered an evidentiary hearing to probe whether the meeting compromised Thayer's rights under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution so severely to warrant a new trial.

In a statement filed in July as part of a motion seeking a new trial for Thayer, attorney Andrew Kossover said the clerk, William Ghee, had expressed doubts on behalf of Justice Rounds about the strength of Gottlieb's defense theory that Thayer shot his friend during a moment of temporary insanity caused by a mix of alcohol and Xanax. Kossover, who no longer represents Thayer, said he didn't tell Gottlieb about the meeting because Ghee swore him to secrecy.

Ghee confirmed that the meeting took place, but denied that it was initiated by Justice Rounds and that he asked Kossover to keep it confidential. Although some material disputes exist in their versions of the events, Ghee and Kossover both said that Ghee suggested to the attorney that a different type of defense theory — one involving extreme emotional disturbance, which has a different legal standard — could be more persuasive to a jury.

Ignorant about that conversation, however, Gottlieb went ahead with the original plan, waiving Thayer's rights to a jury and opting for a bench trial. Justice Rounds ultimately found Thayer not guilty of murder, but convicted him of manslaughter.

The prosecutor trying Thayer's case, Emmanuel C. Nneji, who said in a filing that he had also been kept unaware about the ex parte meeting, opposed an evidentiary hearing into the incident, saying Thayer benefited most from it. Nneji said "the only participants in the cheating were the defense and the [trial] court," and he cast doubt that Gottlieb was never informed about the encounter.

Ultimately, Justice McDonough found the claims were serious enough to require a full hearing with witnesses. He indicated that Justice Rounds, Ghee and Kossover, will have to take the stand to talk about the meeting under oath, an unusual scenario.

"The court finds that a hearing is necessary in this matter," Justice McDonough said. "The rights of the people and the defendant to a fair trial require as much."

Manhattan-based civil rights attorney Joel B. Rudin, who represents Gottlieb and Thayer, told Law360 Pulse in an email Friday that he welcomed the opportunity to present his claims.

"We're gratified that Justice McDonough recognizes that the issues we've raised are serious and we look forward to presenting our case and to his ultimate decision," he said.

The order invites the parties to propose dates for the hearing and witness lists. Gottlieb told Law360 Pulse Friday he expects to testify at the hearing.

"I'll leave it to the judge to decide whether or not what occurred here violated the most fundamental constitutional rights of our client. And I'll leave it to the judge to decide who benefited, and why this happened," he said. "We look forward to a full evidentiary hearing so that the truth of the injustice that occurred can come out."

Nneji declined to comment Friday.

Thayer and Gottlieb are represented by Joel B. Rudin of the Law Offices of Joel B. Rudin PC.

The Ulster County District Attorney's office is represented by Emmanuel C. Nneji.

The case is People v. Thayer, case number 70188-21, in the Supreme Court of New York, Ulster County.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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