top of page
Search

WHEN LEGAL AID LEGALLY AIDED AND ABETTED MY WRONGFUL ROBBERY CONVICTION by Sean Christopher Dancy

Updated: Feb 12, 2023


For the record, this is not an article but a short story with a lot to unpack. Since details are essential please bear with me, because the rest of my life depends on it. It was a festive Easter Sunday night in Times Square on April 4, 1988 around 1:00am. I was a 19-year old kid hanging solo and minding my own business among several kids my age that stood outside the 1 Times Square building. My side of the street was lively but peaceful as youngsters took pictures against various backdrops fitting with the '80s hip hop scene. However, the dark side of mayhem lingered across the street as mobs of lawless teenagers robbed several people of their belongings as they marched up and down the west side of 7th Avenue. Since I had very little cash or worries, I naively assumed that they wouldn't come to my side of the street. I surmised that the rest of us in the area believed the same. While leaning against the light pole I enjoyed the scenery and gazed at the fly girls that strolled by.


I turned my head left as I faced a rude awakening from frantic screams as a lynch mob of 20-25 hoodlums crossed the street and robbed a gentleman of his gold chains while he approached his car, which was parked about 10 feet away from me. Immediately afterwards many of us ran for our lives to avoid getting robbed or hurt in the melee. Since thieves don’t know if your wallet is empty or full, I ran alone westbound on W. 42nd Street past a marked NYPD police car (please bookmark that) in the direction of my former residence, the Holland Hotel on the same street closer to 9th Avenue. I made it midway between 7th and 8th Avenues when I was suddenly knocked and dragged to the ground. When I looked up it was a young Black man with an angry look on his face who stood over me and said nothing. I instantly remembered that he was the guy that was in the car with the victim and asked myself "What the hell did he chase me for????" Unsure of what his next move was going to be I immediately got back up and ran back in the direction that I came from. As I was running back eastbound the police were running toward me. I was ordered to stop by NYPD Officer Harold Lawler #18857, who is White, and he shouted “Stop, boy!!!!! I’ll fuckin’ hit you!!!!! Fearfully, but instantly I complied. In spite of my respect for his command P.O. Lawler grabbed my right arm, struck me in the back with his night stick and with assistance from his partner, P.O. Daniel Rafferty #11210 I was escorted me back to their squad car which was the same one I ran past a half a block away at the northwest corner of W. 42nd St. and 7th Avenue.

After handcuffing me and placing me inside the car there was no communication about what I allegedly did or why I was taken into custody. The gentleman who apprehended me (Albert Dorner) was still walking around the spot in the middle of W. 42nd Street where he knocked me down as if he was seeking something. While still searching he slowly walked toward me making profane threats while I was in the squad car. When he got to the car he yelled at me violently implying that I took his friend’s chains. I told him that although I did witness the incident I did not do it, nor was I involved in it. He repeatedly accused me of robbing his friend and I remained steadfast in my innocence. I even reasoned that I had no chains on me. Albert even implied that I may know who did it when I told him that I simply witnessed the incident but was not involved in it. There was also another older Latino couple standing by the police car who were victims of a crime and the wife was crying uncontrollably. Albert even tried to coax them into filing charges against me by saying "He was out there running with them!" One of the officers asked the husband whether or not I was the one who robbed them and, rightfully so, he replied "No, I didn't get a good look at him." When the police walked away Albert even got in the car and punched me in the face (I have hospital records from the bruise on my left eye and it is also visible in my mugshot). During this time a gentleman in a Fila suit was standing at the corner with Albert who I believe to be his cousin, Trevor Robinson. At another point, some guys in a black Mercedes pulled up a car length ahead of the police car that I was detained in and Albert approached the occupants in it. Though it is unclear who those men were, I assumed that he knew them. During his conversation with them he repeatedly pointed his finger in my direction. Shortly afterwards, those men eventually drove off.

I waited in the squad car for about ten minutes when suddenly the victim (Joseph Valle) approached the squad car. As he was coming, Albert told him that I was ‘the nigga who snatched your chains’. P. O. Rafferty asked Joseph if that was true and while staring at me with an unsure look on his face he replied, “Yes”. “Are you sure?” the officer repeated and Joe reconfirmed his original answer. I was then arrested and charged with robbery in the second degree. I don't even recall being searched until I was taken out of the car at Midtown South Precinct where they found my house keys, a wallet with a few dollars, my New York State non-driver ID, and my social security card (BOOKMARK #2). Between my apprehension up until I was booked the police still never asked me any questions or my side of the story.

I endured the booking process for about 24 hours which felt like an eternity since I was afraid to fall asleep in an unknown territory. Before I was released I was interviewed by The Legal Aid Society attorney, Andrea Leeds when she questioned me about the incident. As I explained what happened she angrily interrupted me and demanded that I "tell the truth", because the victim "knows the DA" (a claim that she later denied). What was equally disturbing was her audacity to awkwardly use a Black colloquialism "Word up" after concluding her "warning" to me. When I was finally released from the holding cell my mother was waiting for me before I saw the judge. Pleased to see her after being held for an entire day, I immediately shared my disgust about the interaction with Attorney Leeds. My mom told me that Leeds admitted to her that she was "a little tough" with me but she told me not to worry and assured me that Leeds was okay. Assuming it was just part of the hazing process since I was new to the system I took my mom's word for it, at least until I was released on my own recognizance.

When I spoke to Attorney Leeds over the phone that morning she told me that the grand jury would convene the next day and that the plaintiffs would be testifying. She also notified me of my right to testify on my own behalf. Since I knew that was innocent and had nothing to hide I was eager to attend and testify. However, since she said that I would not have any representation and that anything that I said could be used as evidence in a trial, even as I insisted she strongly urged me not to take the stand. I followed her advice and refrained from testifying. The plaintiffs testified against me and unfortunately, I was officially charged and arraigned. To my unpleasant surprise, my mother found a New York Post news article of my arrest. It was also featured in the New York Times.




During the two or three months that she was representing me I met with her on several one-on-one occasions to review my case where she threw occasional hints to take a probationary plea deal that Assistant District Attorney Daniel Brownell was offering. I repeatedly told her that I was innocent and rejected all offers. My primary interest was getting my case dismissed, finding out more about the plaintiffs and to press counter charges against Albert Dorner for assaulting me in the police car. But without his full address, which she should have had, I could not pursue them. She also told me that as the defendant I did not have the right to press charges against a plaintiff (which is false) and when I informed her of my wish to file a civilian complaint against Officer Lawler for assaulting me her main concern was about the DA ‘coming after me’ for complaining against one of his cops and advised against it. To protect the integrity of my claim I filed it anyway.

Whenever I questioned her about the progress of my case and the results of her investigations of the plaintiffs (if any) she became defensive and said she did not want to "put up with the bullshit" for questioning her about my own case. After her last beligerrent response, she admitted that she hasn't done anything, even after a couple of months. I forgot the 'bullshit' reason she gave for her negligence but since she was my attorney I naively assumed that I had the right to know.

Ms. Leeds’ hostility and lack of representation put my mother on the defense and they butted heads on a few occasions. The straw that broke the camel's back was on or near the Wade Hearing date when my mother and I were at the courtroom on time. This hearing is where the police and the plaintiffs would testify to see if the case is suitable for a criminal trial. When Justice Stephen Crane called my name Ms. Leeds was nowhere to be found. With the Legal Aid firm being across the street from the court I went upstairs to find her eating lunch with her feet on the desk while casually dressed in a sweat suit. I reminded her that we had court that day and in the absence of surprise or concern, she nonchalantly took her time and got dressed in her business attire before walking across the street to the courtroom. When the hearing commenced and after the police officers testified against me Justice Crane blasted her for her lateness, incompetence, and failure to subpoena the plaintiffs for cross-examination. Although she claimed that she did not have their proper addresses, he reasoned that Legal Aid’s private investigators had ample time to obtain that information long before the hearing. Unsurprisingly, her negligence forced the court to sustain the charges.

Knowing the turmoil that we experienced with Ms. Leeds, Legal Aid’s legal supervisor, Thomas Klein took over the case. He even met me in Times Square by the crime scene one morning to reenact the events leading to my arrest. I repeated them verbatim as I did in the previous paragraphs from start to finish as I walked him through the entire event. I was sincerely under the impression that he was genuinely concerned about my case and at that time I had no reason to doubt him. Although Mr. Klein appeared more amiable than Ms. Leeds our trust in him slowly waned when he instructed me not to bring in character witnesses, chose jurors that I openly objected to, and prior to the trial, advised me to falsely testify against myself on the stand and tell the jury that I “struggled with the officers” because I "did not want to be arrested". He claimed that my story would me 'more believable’ to the jury but despite his numerous attempts to convince me, my intuition failed to waiver.

Ironically, on the day of the trial Attorney Klein informed me that Albert Dorner was arrested on a gun charge a couple of weeks after I was arrested. Considering the time of his arrest I suspect that Legal Aid should have been privy to this information much earlier and I should have known about it. To my surprise while on the stand Dorner appeared nervous and unsure of himself as he lacked the same zeal and bravado displayed on the night of my arrest. During cross-examining Klein questioned him about the gun charges but he invoked his 5th Amendment rights. Klein also raised the point while cross-examining Dorner and Valle that at the grand jury trial the plaintiffs claimed that I was the lead accomplice of only 5 to 10 youths that came behind Joseph and reached for his chains while he grabbed my shirt sleeve in a supposed attempt to stop me. In that same session, Joseph even indicated that he ran in another direction while Albert ran after me. Yet at the trial they both contradicted their original complaint stating that I "stood in front" of Mr. Valle with some ‘look on my face’ but in this story, Albert denied that I attempted to reach for his chains. Immediately afterwards ADA Brownell redirected his cross-examination where Albert 'corrected' his statement and claimed that I did reach for Joseph’s chains. Also, contrary to the facts, Albert told the jury that when he stopped me he immediately told the police that I was the one who snatched his friend’s chains and when we arrived to the squad car, within three minutes Joseph was already standing right there and identified me. Even P.O. Lawler stated in the Wade Hearing that after I was handcuffed Joe Valle was not there. Although both plaintiffs testified that Albert’s cousin, Trevor Robinson was with them on the night of the incident they both claimed he was not able to testify as a trial witness, because he was allegedly attending college down South at the time. I attest that Trevor could have been subpoenaed but I digress.

As a last-ditch effort before I testified, Klein asked me once more to incriminate myself by saying that I attempted to evade the officers. Since I was not naïve enough to comply with his request after his last several attempts, during my trial testimony he stopped questioning me beyond the point when Mr. Dorner knocked me down which prevented me from explaining everything in the earlier paragraphs of this story that transpired up until my arrest. When Brownell cross-examined me I braced myself for courtroom trickery he might use to twist my words and listened to his words carefully. Whatever I didn’t understand I asked him to redirect so I did. Before her departure Leeds warned me that although he wasn’t aggressive he was cunning with his words. I remained confident throughout his approach and stuck to my story.

In his closing argument Klein gave the jury the impression that I may have been involved and inaccurately referred to me as a “kid from the streets”, because I was living in a welfare hotel. I assume that the plaintiffs and the officers' testimonies along with my own lawyer throwing me under the bus most likely weighed on the jury's decision. Compounding Klein’s argument was Brownell’s closing argument where he noted to the jury that even though I was “calm and cool” on the stand it was clear that I was the “lead actor” in the robbery. It was also noted that I didn’t have a job at the time of the incident. Although I was unemployed between the time that I was arrested until about a month before trial my mother was employed and getting child support so at the time, I wasn’t lacking any basic needs. When I did apply for jobs after I was arrested I was denied employment because in those days employers wanted to know if you were convicted or arrested. Since my trial was pending I was denied on many occasions because as a new hire I would not be able to take off work for court appearances. Between August and October 1988 I secured foot messenger jobs but due to court appearances I was terminated.

On October 3, 1988 the jury found me guilty, I was immediately taken into custody and sent to Rikers Island. Although my mother was not present for the conviction my female friend that was in the courtroom said that after I was remanded she saw Klein and Brownell casually conversing with each other as they walked through the hallways of the Supreme Court building.

Before my sentencing on October 24, 1988 I had nine pre-sentencing letters of support from family, friends, and two psychologists confirming my good character and the fact that I had no prior arrest record. I even had one from my uncle who was a NYC Housing Police lieutenant. As a result I was sentenced to 1 ½ to 4 ½ years in state prison, the minimum sentence mandated by law. Henceforth, if these people were allowed to testify on my behalf, perhaps the result may have been different. I then appealed my case.

Since my appeal also involved ineffective counsel by Legal Aid, in 1989 I was assigned another court-appointed attorney, Mr. John Perniciaro, for my appeal. Naturally, I expected him to keep me posted on the status of my case. In 1991 he sent me a copy of the briefs that he filed for my appeal. In 1993, when I finally gave him a call since he did not give me any information up to that point, he informed me that not only was my appeal for a new trial denied, but that all possibilities of a higher appeal were exhausted due to the expiration in the time frame. My only recourse was to obtain new evidence for the case to be reopened. Uncertain of how to approach the issue due to lack of funds and resources I continued to live my normal life for the next few decades.

In August 2013 I hired a private investigator, Isham Latimer of Golden Glow Investigations to interview Albert’s cousin Trevor Robinson to see if he remembered any details from the day that the incident occurred. Although Mr. Robinson never responded to the PI’s request, based on the information that Mr. Latimer obtained it did not show that Trevor resided anywhere in the southern states during the fall of 1988, which raises doubt about the plaintiffs’ testimonies. In November 2013, I went to South Beach, Florida and hired private investigator Steve Kavashansky of Discreet Protection & Investigative Services to interview Joe Valle while he was at the tail end of a prison sentence in western Florida’s South Bay Prison for drug trafficking. During the interview, which commenced on November 26, 2013 he still alleged my involvement to the PI but stated that during a struggle we "both fell to the ground" as I "pulled his chains and a ring off and ran" while Albert chased me and some dudes allegedly “jumped him”. During the interview Joe quoted “If he did do it and said he did it and made a mistake I'd be willing to help him out.” With the latter sounding more like a negotiation than a testimony, it should have never been a question of "if", if he was certain that I was the perpetrator.





In the summer of 2014 since he was instrumental in assisting Martin Tankleff in his exoneration of his parents' murders, I hired former PI Jay Salpeter to interview Albert Dorner and review my transcript. Mr. Dorner stated that not only did he 'apprehend me with his left hand' after the incident, he also 'had a grasp of another gentleman with his right hand.' The other individual supposedly sliced Albert’s wrist with a razor to free himself as he fled into the subway station. Afterward, Albert pursued me and knocked me down in front of the police car. Please be mindful that Joe nor Albert ever mentioned these critical details to the police or the courts. Especially since Albert was allegedly cut by another assailant, contrary to his testimony his attention was obviously divided. Most importantly, if it is true then why didn’t he seek immediate medical attention? Logically, his blood would have been present on my clothing and his green outfit, and since his hands were exposed the police should have definitely noticed it. Plus, they could have possibly added charges against me for aiding and abetting an assault with a weapon.





In total, including man-hours doing research, web searches, making phone calls, etc. I spent almost $3,000 in investigative services both private and personal. As the trial minutes clarify, why would they both make two different implications in the grand jury and jury trials? If I was a ‘chest to chest’ ringleader in this crime where Joe and Albert never lost sight of me, wouldn’t it be logical for me to have at least one of the stolen items? Furthermore, in the trial minutes there is no mention of me falling anywhere and, like his initial grand jury testimony Joe even admitted that he ran after someone else and ADA Brownell confirmed his testimony at the Wade Hearing. At one juncture, Albert testified that he went to “look for Joe” as I sat in the squad car at the corner of 7th and W. 42nd. It would not even take a minute to go from 1 Times Square to the corner that I was being held since it was in clear view just across the street so, per his trial and PI testimony it definitely would not have even taken the three minutes that he claimed to get to where I was held.


Per the police arrest logs respectively, with the incident taking place around 1:00am the time of the arrests were at 0120 by one officer and 0130 hours by the other officer (1:20am and 1:30am respectively) which both well exceed the three-minute gap between the incident and the arrest that the plaintiffs and the officers testified to. So, the prevailing question is where did Joe really go immediately after the incident and why did the plaintiffs and the police officers have so many inconsistencies in all three of their testimonies? How was Joe at the police car immediately after the incident if Albert admitted that he ‘went to look for him’ while I was detained? With 20-30 minutes between the robbery and my arrest, substantially there’s much more to be desired.

As I revisit the bookmarks in this article I recognize that not every brain has the brightest bulb. Most of us who have one can generally process logic. With that said, anyone who is brave enough to be the ringleader of a crime generally commits one with the intention of reaping the benefits and getting away with it. Setting aside the folly of Dorner and Valle’s nefarious claims, if anyone with 20/20 vision (mine was about 20/18 at the time, decades before I needed glasses) is brazen enough to rob someone knowing that there is a marked police car in clear view across from the scene of the crime, how careless is it to have the goods in your hands and not have them in your possession? What pro-baller misses a free throw while standing an inch away from the basket? Secondly, when they could go south, north, or east why in God’s name would they opt to run west directly in the pathway of a police car, knowing that they have government issued ID in their possession that could easily get lost even if they managed to escape the scene of the crime? That sounds like a really bright idea, which is why I wasn’t ashamed of doing it, because I knew that I was innocent.


A painful reality for Joe Valle is that whoever robbed him that night was smart enough to run somewhere where they were less likely to get caught. Per his own testimony via Daniel Brownell, I contend that he ran after the actual perpetrators who robbed him but was unsuccessful in capturing them and retrieving his belongings. In his anger and frustration from giving chase, when he returned to the area he took the word of his best friend over analytical truth and convinced himself of the lies that Al presented to him, because his (Albert’s) pride would not allow him to accept that he was wrong. In the end, Joe lost $2K worth of jewelry and someone had to pay.

Interestingly enough, Brownell, who was a former state and federal prosecutor was previously appointed to the Business Integrity Commission to oversee the trash hauling industry. His ‘integrity’ came into question when Bronx workers complained of racial discrimination, unfair wages, undocumented on-the-job injury claims, and other violations committed by their employers and no substantial action was taken against them. Sanitation Salvage, one of the companies that Brownell was overseeing allegedly covered up the vehicular deaths of at least two of their employees while on duty. On his advisory board Brownell also appointed Ray Shain a disbarred lawyer and convicted felon, who plead guilty to bid-rigging, bribery and kickback scheme that defrauded Queens public schools out of over $6 million. He opined that while the agency did not appoint certain convicted felons, Mr. Shain’s crimes did not affect his appointment to the position. While his agency had overwhelming authority over the trash industry, despite the numerous violations that the companies committed their failure to summon or subpoena these agencies left a lot to be desired by Brownell’s leadership and the entire BIC. In the height of BIC scrutiny under former New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres (currently a New York State congressman), Daniel Brownell resigned from the position and joined a corporate security and compliance firm.

Per these allegations one would reasonably suspect that Mr. Brownell was receiving kickbacks or other fringe benefits from the trash hauling companies for his silence and complicity. If so, I would also conclude that he engaged in judicial corruption as a prosecutor in my case and other criminal trials. Rightfully so, I cannot prove anything that was done or said behind the scenes of my trial in 1988. However, I cannot deny the unrelenting irony behind the contradictory testimonies from the plaintiffs and the police that are otherwise perjurious under legal circumstances. In 20/20 hindsight I believe that Klein's reenactment walk wasn't designed to help him get a better view of the case for my defense, but to provide leverage for the prosecutor to recreate the narrative for the perfect frame job. Why else would Brownell reaffirm the plaintiffs’ grand jury testimonies implying that I robbed Joseph Valle from behind while he chased someone else in the Wade Hearing, and allow them to change both of their testimonies during trial by placing me in front of the victim? Why wouldn't he question the integrity of the drastic change in their statements? Knowing that there was no evidence against me it would not surprise me if Albert Dorner's gun charge was used as leverage in a deal between Brownell and the Nassau County prosecutors in exchange for his testimony, knowing damn well that his claims were false. His trepidation was visually evident during trial and in the trial minutes.

If my hunch is correct that Brownell conspired with the plaintiffs to falsify their testimonies just so he can get a conviction, I also question how many other innocent people’s cases were doctored so he can boost his credibility as a prosecutor on the state and federal levels. Sadly enough, I would expect that from a prosecutor instead of my own attorney, even if they are court-appointed. It's no secret that public defenders are overloaded with cases that they struggle to manage in a short span of time, with limited resources for each case. However, since that is what they signed up for a defendant can reasonably expect them to put their best foot forward, especially when they are innocent and demonstrate a willingness to fully cooperate with the courts. It's obvious that Legal Aid had nothing to lose by forfeiting my case and my civil liberties, but Klein obviously had something to gain. That is still a mystery to me today but whatever it was should not have been done at my expense or anyone else's. Since Klein is now a supervisor for the Bronx Defenders law firm I wonder if it’s a minute too late.


I have seen countless shows and articles in which many people’s convictions were overturned due to new evidence involving DNA testing. Since my appeals have been exhausted and I do not have anything concrete as a video or DNA to prove my case it makes my quest for exoneration a greater challenge, because legal fees to even consider reopening the case are well above ten thousand dollars. I gave up the fight for many years but I continue because my faith remains strong.


Unless I produce new evidence to prove my innocence, there is no way to reverse this felony conviction. Even though I am an innocent man who has been living a productive life overall with a good job, a good marriage, and a home after the incident, I still feel the need for closure. With a felony conviction hanging over my head I still feel vulnerable in the event of another mistaken identity, some better job offers, or anything requiring a totally clean background check, since I have been denied greater opportunities in the past because of this. I took the Railroad Clerk exam for New York City Transit in early 1988 before my arrest and passed with a 93.75. Due to a hiring freeze Transit called me for the job in 1991 where I went through the application and drug screening process. After waiting months for a response I got a rejection letter without clear reason explaining why. I concluded that since it was a cash handling job, I had a robbery conviction and was still on parole, I was still a risk. Fortunately, I took other NYCT and other civil service exams and I was hired as a subway conductor in 1999. In 2001 I became a train operator (motorman) and have successfully held the title ever since.


In 2019 I wrote a letter to the New York State Attorney General's Conviction Review Unit with a flash drive containing my trial minutes, PI reports, and other pertinent documents. Although my case was outside of their jurisdiction they said they would contact the courts and recommended other expungement options. I have consulted Conviction Integrity Units, The Innocence Project, The Exoneration Initiative, and many other non-profit law firms about my case but because most are primarily interested in DNA evidence, even with the new contradictory statements my new evidence wasn't good enough to even reopen the case. What disturbs me is that if the tables were reversed and the police and the courts were presented with contradictory info in a cold case, I’m sure they would prioritize that to secure a conviction.


When I have applied for other jobs, housing, or even TSA Precheck airport access I was humiliated with the constant reminder of the felony conviction questions that triggered the dreadful memories of what took place almost 35 years ago. Having been called for jury duty and rejected for the fourth time in January 2023, and being barred from any form of global airport access are two of several depressing reminders. These false allegations that left a permanent scar on my life still return to haunt me when my guard is down. Even though I have not been in any legal trouble before entering or after I was released from prison, regardless of my innocence, with this conviction I will always be perceived otherwise in other areas.


As human beings we are all guilty of our perceptions of people be they just or unjust. It's important not to mistake our opinions for facts until they can be proven. At the time of my arrest Joe Valle worked at meat market in Chelsea yet he was mysteriously able to afford $2K worth of jewelry. As a Latino, he could have easily been perceived as a drug dealer back then, regardless if he was a working college kid. Especially since he acquired an arrest, a conviction, and jail sentence for that same crime decades later, whether he's guilty or innocent he was prosecuted by the laws of karma. As a Catholic School alumnus Albert Dorner should be familiar with 1 Corinthians 15:33 which says "Bad company corrupts good character." That all depends on whether his character was ever good in the first place. After all, like his partner he also had a gun charge, plus a history of child support issues in family court. Was he a deadbeat dad or was the mother(s) a jilted ex out for revenge? Especially where he has minimal presence in his children's public photos one can easily make visual judgments. Without the back story it would be disingenuous for me or anyone else to affirm such without evidence. Yet in the name of hypocrisy they both willingly misjudged me, and altered the trajectory of my adult life.

I am sharing my story with the world because I am innocent and my voice matters. My prayer is that this article would reach anyone with the resources to make my dream of exoneration come true and possibly prevent anyone else from suffering the pain that I have endured for decades. While I still have a pulse I will continue my fight, because my freedom is worth it. Prayerfully, the courts will eventually realize that.



Anyone in media, a law firm, or otherwise that can assist in my cause, please contact me at info@anti-chauvinist.com. I would truly appreciate your help. Thank you very much for listening and have a blessed day.



Comments


bottom of page