John Greenwood '20 with his attorneys.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

John Greenwood '20 with his attorneys.

March 15, 2018

Dismissing Charges Against Cornell Student Would Put ‘Community at Risk,’ Prosecutor Says

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atthew Van Houten, the Tompkins County district attorney prosecuting John Greenwood ’20, argued this week that dismissing hate crime and other charges against the sophomore, as Greenwood’s lawyer has urged a judge to do, “would place the community at risk.”

In a court filing on Wednesday, Van Houten responded to an omnibus motion filed earlier this month by Greenwood’s attorney, Ronald P. Fischetti, who said the three misdemeanor charges against his client should be dismissed in the interest of justice.

Van Houten took issue with most of Fischetti’s claims, saying that neither the results of a polygraph exam nor the victim’s blood drops found inside Greenwood’s Collegetown house prove anything about the sophomore’s guilt or innocence. He also disputed Fischetti’s allegation that police arrested Greenwood illegally, opposed the lawyer’s motion to transfer the case out of the City of Ithaca and said that a claim of self-defense would have no merit.

Matthew Van Houten

District Attorney Matthew Van Houten

Dismissing the case before going to trial, Van Houten wrote, “would place the community at risk because it would enable and encourage the defendant to continue to act without regard for the law, with no concern for the consequences of his actions or their effect upon the community.”

Greenwood, a 20-year-old student in the SC Johnson College of Business, is on leave from Cornell and studying in Italy as the case progresses. Last semester, Van Houten charged him with three misdemeanors — attempted assault as a hate crime, aggravated harassment and criminal mischief — in connection with the September assault of a black student, Solomon Shewit ’19, on Eddy Street in Collegetown.

Greenwood has pleaded not guilty and apologized for “unacceptable” language after a video obtained by The Sun showed a man, identified by several students as Greenwood, using racial slurs shortly before the altercation. Fischetti did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

The portion of Fischetti’s motion that made the most noise — that Greenwood could be deported to Canada if convicted — earned a muted response from Van Houten, who said only that any sentence imposed on Greenwood following a conviction “would have no more of an effect on defendant’s life than it would for any other similarly situated individual.”

‘SERIOUS OFFENSE’

Van Houten said Shewit was “the only African American in the group of students from both houses” and was “singled out by virtue of the use of racial epithets that could have only been directed at him.” The district attorney said the attempted assault is a “serious offense … that cannot be tolerated in this community.”

Any argument that the charges should be dismissed because they are “minor,” Van Houten wrote, is “faulty and specious.”

Greenwood, in blue, enters Ithaca City Court on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

Greenwood, in blue, enters Ithaca City Court on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017.

“The victim suffered a bloody nose and was subjected to the humiliation of being physically assaulted by a group of Caucasian males, including the defendant,” Van Houten wrote.

Fischetti pointed out earlier this month that none of the Ithaca Police Department’s witnesses reported seeing the physical altercation, a point Van Houten called a “pure non sequitur” in his motion, arguing that Fischetti provided no evidence that the assault did not occur.

BLOOD DROPS

The district attorney also responded to Fischetti’s claims that because Shewit’s blood was found just inside Greenwood’s house, Shewit must have “trespassed into Mr. Greenwood’s home in anger,” as Fischetti argued, and that Greenwood and others had the right to defend themselves.

“Proof that the victim’s blood was found inside the defendant’s house does not and could not prove where the victim’s nose began to bleed,” Van Houten said, calling Fischetti’s logic “faulty … at best” and noting that Fischetti did not produce an affidavit from an expert he claimed to have consulted.

“There are many ways that blood can be deposited in a location,” Van Houten wrote. “The fact that the victim’s blood was found inside the residence cannot possibly prove where the victim started bleeding.”

Van Houten said that even if the altercation had occurred in the 306 Eddy St. house or on its front porch, there would still be no valid self-defense claim because Shewit was confronting Greenwood following the sophomore’s use of “racial epithets and abusive language.” There is no evidence that Shewit was violent or intended to damage property, Van Houten said.

“The defendant cannot escalate the encounter and then claim self-defense because he claims it took place on his property,” the district attorney wrote.

ARREST

Fischetti argued that police had unlawfully arrested Greenwood, saying that unreleased police body camera footage showed officers yanking Greenwood out of the doorway of his home without a warrant.

Van Houten said this claim is “without merit” and that “the police interaction with [Greenwood] was justified by adequate cause.” He points out that Greenwood did not submit any statements in support of the claim that police unlawfully entered his home.

Van Houten also said 306 Eddy St. is classified “as an inn or lodge” under the zoning code, “which includes the subcategory of fraternity house.”

The district attorney said it is an open question as to which parts of the Eddy Street home are considered Greenwood’s residence and which are considered common areas or shared spaces, and he agreed to a suppression hearing to resolve questions regarding the arrest.

FAIR TRIAL

Fischetti, earlier this month, requested that Judge Richard M. Wallace of Ithaca City Court transfer the case to an adjacent county because of what Fischetti said was intense and unfair media coverage.

Van Houten opposed this motion and said changing the venue of a trial before attempting to select a jury is a rare occurrence that is not warranted in this case. Members of a jury, Van Houten said, do not need to be ignorant of the case, only “open-minded and unbiased.”

‘NOT WORTHY OF A RESPONSE’

The motion filed by Van Houten, who has been the county’s top prosecutor for nearly 15 months, is relatively brief, especially when placed beside Fischetti’s 101-page filing, which Van Houten described earlier this month as “voluminous.”

At about one-tenth the size, Van Houten’s response largely consists of curt, declarative dismissals of the New York lawyer’s claims, and includes some wry arguments, as when he brushes aside the results of a private polygraph examination that Greenwood took at Fischetti’s request.

Greenwood’s “assertion that he is telling the truth because he passed a polygraph examination that he paid for and which was orchestrated by his own representatives is not worthy of a response,” Van Houten wrote.

The proceedings are taking place in Ithaca City Court

Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

The proceedings are taking place in Ithaca City Court

Responding to another argument on the same page, Van Houten writes that Greenwood “apparently … feels the need to describe the fact that he was not wearing shoes as his being ‘partially undressed,’ which directly relates to the merit, or lack thereof, of this particular argument.”

Van Houten and Fischetti also disagree over whether statements made by Greenwood to police following his arrest should be available to the jury during trial. The statements have not been publicly released, and it is unclear what Greenwood said to police early in the morning after being cuffed in Collegetown.

Van Houten said the unspecified statements were made voluntarily and should not be suppressed, while Fischetti claims that prosecutors have not taken procedural steps required to use them at trial. A judge will likely decide the matter at a motion hearing.

Many of the arguments in the dueling motions will be decided by Wallace, the judge, at hearings that could take weeks or months, depending in part on the court’s schedule.

The next court date in the case is scheduled for March 21, but none of the questions raised in the motions are likely to be resolved until after then.