November 6, 2015

Murder Charges in Tan ’17 Trial Dismissed

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One month after declaring a mistrial in the murder trial of Charles Tan ’17, County Court Judge James Piampiano shocked observers Thursday by dismissing all charges against the former Cornell student.

Tan was tried last month for allegedly fatally shooting his father in February. However, after eight days of deliberations, the jurors were dismissed without a verdict. The case was expected to be retried early next year.

Those expectations were shattered Thursday, when all parties returned to court for what was supposed to be a series of routine pre-trial proceedings. There, in response to the defense’s motion for dismissal, Piampiano told both sides that he thought the prosecution had failed to meet its burden in the first trial, prompting what The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported was visible celebration from Tan supporters in the gallery.

Piampiano justified his decision in part by saying that the prosecution had failed to even place the murder weapon — a 12-gauge shotgun — in Tan’s hands. During the ruling, Assistant District Attorney William Gargan, the prosecutor who tried the case against Tan, loudly interrupted the judge and resisted initial orders to keep quiet, according to The Democrat and Chronicle. Gargan later called the ruling the “most shocking” he had ever witnessed.

After the proceedings ended, Gargan suggested that the judge must have “amnesia” to have ignored what he claimed was clear evidence of Tan’s guilt, including statements made by both Tan and his mother. Gargan said he stands” by every decision” he made in trying the case and “was more than willing to have handcuffs placed on” him at one point during the proceedings, The Democrat and Chronicle reported.

Tan was a Cornell student until his arrest in February. After Thursday’s decision, his lawyers said he is likely to return to the Hill, according to The Democrat and Chronicle. However, the University was not immediately able to comment Thursday concerning whether Tan will be readmitted.

The defense team told The Democrat and Chronicle they were not surprised with Piampiano’s ruling, saying that the weakness of the prosecution’s case made dismissal seem like a valid possibility after the mistrial.

“He’s been living a nightmare for over a year with this case going on,” said James Nobles, one of Tan’s defense lawyers. “Certainly at this point in time he can move on with the rest of his life.”

  • Jaddy Baddy

    Lyle and Eric Menendez must be pi$$ing their CADOC
    jump suits that they didn’t wait for a NY vacation
    to murder Their parents. What a difference a
    change of venue and a crooked judge makes.

    Now, how do we get rid of Piampiano before he sets
    the entire inmate population of the NYDOC loose?

    • Mark Cook

      Judge James Piampiano was just elected on a Republican-Conservative ticket to a 14 year term on the New York State Supreme Court. I don’t know how you would get rid of him anyway, Jaddy Baddy, since his decision in the Tan case has been extremely well received in Rochester.

      Quite simply, the prosecution failed to make its case. If this person, or else that person, could have shot the gun, that is reasonable doubt right there. The prosecution could never get over that hump, and it was obvious. The judge’s decision was correct.

      But it’s easy to see why public opinion in Rochester was overwhelmingly in favor of acquittal. Charlie Tan’s commitment to others, and self-sacrifice for others, has been mentioned by all who know him, and is reflected in the Latin “non sibi,” “not for self,” suggested to him by a fraternity brother, that he agreed to have tattooed on his arm. That is emphatically the opinion of Charlie Tan’s neighbors in Rochester, and his classmates, teachers and coaches in his Rochester high school and at Cornell, who filled the courtroom every day to show support for Charlie.

      As the judge noted in an interview, “I’m not sure that I can recall in recent times, somebody being that sympathetic of a figure.”

      • LTE

        No, the judge’s decision was legally incorrect. On the dismissal motion, he was required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution. Tan (“I had to do it”) and his mother (“My son shot my husband”) both said that Tan was the killer. That’s legally sufficient evidence to present the case to the jury, and that was also supported by lots of circumstantial evidence of his guilt. The judge’s comment about how sympathetic a figure Tan was shows the judge’s bias. Even if you were right about the law, that would mean the judge wasted the jury’s time and improperly sought to get a not guilty verdict, so that he wouldn’t have to dismiss the case himself for what he perceived as lack of evidence. All around, it was a pathetic performance by the judge, and it is sad that he did this on purpose two days after his election victory (by the way, the defense lawyers contributed financially to his campaign). You say this verdict has been well received in Rochester — yes, by the privileged friends of Tan and others in his well-off community, not by the inner city community that would never receive this type of judicial fiat. An inner city defendant would be getting what the law required, a retrial, not a free pass from the judge to resume a privileged life.

  • Mark

    Sorry, LTE, I didn’t see your comment before.

    First off, Charlie did not get a hung jury and dismissal of the charges by the judge because of what he was (a privileged Ivy League student from a well-off community), but because of WHO he was (a remarkably selfless and loving person, absolutely committed to others).

    To test it, just imagine the tables were turned, and it was the father, Jim Tan, who was accused of murdering his wife or one of his two sons. Would the community rise up in his support, raising almost $50,000 for his defense in 48 hours? Would neighbors stand outside the courtroom in the icy cold to call out to him as he was being led back to jail after a court hearing, “We love you Jim!” “Stay strong, Jim!” “We’re with you all the way, Jim!” Would they? Obviously not, but that’s what they did for Charlie.

  • Mark

    Second, LTE, as for your statement that “the judge’s comment about how sympathetic a figure Tan was shows the judge’s bias,” no, it doesn’t. It was a statement of fact. Even the district attorney said something similar in the NBC Dateline program: “The biggest problem was the defendant himself, because he did appear to be, you know, an upstanding, nice young man. From the very beginning, people were disappointed that an indictment was filed against Charlie Tan and that we were taking this to court.”

    One need only read the statements of love and support in the GiveForward.com donations to Charlie’s defense fund. Almost $50,000 was collected in 48 hours, average $78.19:

    “We are all here for you Charlie! Just know that so many people love and care about you. We will get through this together!”

    “Stay strong you have overwhelming support”

    “charlie is the nicest person i have ever met! he gave so much to our community and now its time ti give back to charlie.”

    “The Bradleys stand behind Charlie! We love you Charlie!”

    “I grew up in an abusive home when I was younger and there’s nothing worse than that helpless feeling as you see your mom being savagely beaten. Good luck with everything bro. If I could give more, I would. -Broke College Student” [donated $15]

    “Charlie – we’re here for you, today, tomorrow and always!”

    “I have learned about how wonderful a man Charlie is through a friend. My heart holds Charlie, his Mom and his brother in my heart and pray that healing can begin.”

    Charlie, I am sending love and support to you and your family. Stay strong.”

    “Love you guys – best wishes to the three of you” [Charlie, his brother Jeff, and their mother Jean]

    “Charlie we love you! Stay strong and know that you have community that cares about what happens to you!!”

    “Thinking of you and your family, and know that we all support you fully.”

    “Dear Charlie: Look at all these folks who stand behind you! Please know that you and your family are in our thoughts and prayers…”

    “We totally support you Charlie! We’re thinking about you, and are glad that you’ve been part of our lives!”

    “I know I am a little late, but I wanted to express my support and love for you in this difficult time. Even though I have known you for a short time, your profound kindness and warmth defines you. Stay strong, and if you ever need to chat let us know. You have support in even more places than you realize. Xoxoxo Lindsay (from the gym)”

    Many, many more like these. Little wonder that one of his fraternity brothers recalled the Latin phrase “non sibi” (not for self) when thinking about Charlie, and another tattooed it onto Charlie’s arm: nothing fancy, no leaves or waterfalls or the library bell tower, just Times Roman capital letters, but all the more impressive for its simplicity.

    There are plenty of murder cases where nobody has anything good to say about the murder victim (as in this case). But I’d have a hard time coming up with a case where the prosecution could produce no one with anything but the most wonderful and loving things to say about the accused.

    That’s what makes this case unforgettable. Charlie is an inspiration to all of us.

  • Mark

    Finally, LTE, you apparently want to go back to the grand jury stage, rather than look at the prosecution’s failures in the actual trial — the one that failed to win a conviction. What you are citing as “legally sufficient evidence” is sufficient to get a grand jury to indict, not to win the case at trial. As a chief justice of the New York State Court of Appeals famously declared, a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. Defense counsel is not allowed in the grand jury room, much less permitted to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, let alone present its own witnesses or its own case. There is not even a judge in the room to protect the defendant’s rights or ensure correct legal procedures (and grand jury proceedings are secret); the prosecutor is in charge, and prosecutors often even insist that questions from members of the grand jury to prosecution witnesses have to be whispered to the prosecutor, who then re-phrases the question in such a way as to most favor the prosecution.

    However, now that the case has gone to trial, with witnesses from both the prosecution and the defense, revealing the prosecution’s shortcomings and resulting in a hung jury, you are in a different place altogether. It did not escape the notice of the judge, or anyone else, that the prosecution was unable to place the gun in Charlie’s hands, and that — as one pro-prosecution juror said afterward on Dateline NBC — that was what resulted in the jury’s failure to convict, in what the prosecution had previously declared to be an open-and-shut case.

    That would not change on a retrial: the prosecution could only retry the exact same case. It could not amend the charge to change or add a defendant, or change the charge altogether. The judge’s ruling was right.

    As for your claim that somebody from an inner-city community would not get the same treatment, that is true and a national disgrace, resulting in a prison population that is the largest in the world, larger even than in China or India, countries with four times our population. The only beneficiaries are the prison-industrial complex. All the factors are well-known: extortionately high bail that the district attorney knows the accused will not be able to meet; prosecutors who pile on charges so that defendants are pressed to accept a plea bargain of 5 to 7 instead of risking 25 to 30, even though the defendant is innocent; and the Legal Aid case overloads that force those attorneys to pressure their clients to accept such plea bargains.

    A large part of the blame for all that lies with district attorneys. We do not cure it by imprisoning even more people who may very well be innocent. We cure it by reforming the whole rotten system.