Clash between lawyers means disorder in court

Murder case sentencing postponed as prosecutor vows to sue Aretakis

Section: Capital Region,  Page: B1

Date: Saturday, March 1, 2008

ALBANY - The second highest-ranking prosecutor in Albany County exploded at controversial attorney John Aretakis on Friday after the lawyer accused him of allowing false testimony into a murder trial last year.

"This time, he's going to be on the wrong end of a lawsuit," Chief Assistant District Attorney Mark Harris told Judge Thomas Breslin in Albany County Court. "I'm gonna personally sue him." The court theatrics took place at the scheduled sentencing date for Christopher Oathout, 25, who was convicted of second-degree murder in December for the 2006 killing of 69-year-old Robert Taylor in the DeWitt Clinton Apartments, near the state Capitol.

Breslin adjourned the sentencing for two weeks - but not before the judge, Harris and eventually Oathout all expressed ire at Aretakis.

"I don't feel he's looking out for my best interests," Oathout told the judge, accusing Aretakis of threatening not to act on his behalf if he did not drop a complaint against the lawyer.

Aretakis, who has made headlines representing victims of clergy abuse, stated Harris was aware that two key witnesses were possibly lying about his client last year. As a result, Aretakis alleged, Harris handed off the case off to another prosecutor.

When Breslin initially asked Aretakis if he was making the serious charge against Harris, Aretakis said he was acting on the word of his client. Aretakis then told the judge it was based on a "good faith opinion."

"I take very seriously my ethical responsibility to Mr. Oathout," Aretakis told the judge. "I'm doing everything in my will and my power to defend him."

An angry Harris blasted the perjury allegation as "scurrilous and outrageous," calling Aretakis a "disgrace" to the defense bar. Harris said his extra duties as chief assistant to District Attorney David Soares were the reason Assistant District Attorney Brian Farley took over prosecuting the case.

Both Harris and Farley stood by the testimony of the two witnesses in question: former prostitute Oswaida Lugo, who said she watched Oathout repeatedly stab Taylor, and Daniel Reuter, who said Oathout confessed to the slaying while both men were in the Albany County jail.

"We're not going to put a case forward with sworn perjury," Farley later said. Aretakis filed a motion in court asking Breslin to set aside the verdict.

In court papers, Aretakis stated he believes Harris withdrew as the trial attorney in the case because he "knew or became aware of the fact that Daniel Reuter and/or Oswaida Lugo were not telling the truth or other witnesses were not truthful, or were not going to be testifying on the witness stand at trial in a truthful manner about material issues in the testimony and facts in the case, and that warranted or necessitated that Mr. Harris not act as the trial attorney for he people."

Aretakis also alleged that law enforcement officials asked Reuter to concoct a "false story that Mr. Oathout confessed to him, and this might have happened with Oswaida Lugo." Aretakis told the judge that Harris's pledge to sue him, while in court, was illegal, prompting Harris to cut in, "Write me up, Mr. Aretakis!"

Breslin said based on the allegation, Harris' response was justified. It was as serious a charge against a prosecutor as could be made, the judge said.

Aretakis started off telling Breslin that he received a tip, while vacationing in Florida, that Oathout was "framed by a false confession that he did not give."

The tip, Aretakis said, came from the brother of a would-be witness at Oathout's murder trial.

The would-be witness had been expected to testify that Oathout confessed the murder to him, Aretakis said.

Oathout plans to appeal the conviction, hoping for a new trial - with a different attorney.

The defendant said he wanted a new attorney and that Aretakis had, at one point, threatened him to drop a complaint. Aretakis denied any such threat.

While Aretakis initially pledged to represent the defendant free of charge, the attorney said in court Friday he was referring only to the early stages of the case.

Oathout's mother, Lori Oathout, said Aretakis took over the murder case with the "goodness of his heart," but she now believes he was "one of the main reasons he was convicted of this crime."

Robert Gavin can be reached at 434-2403 or by e-mail at rgavin@