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Court of Appeals won't hear West case

The state’s highest court on Wednesday denied Alexander West’s efforts to file an additional appeal of his convictions for the 2016 fatal boat crash on Lake George that killed 8-year-old Charlotte McCue.

A mid-level appeals court denied West’s appeal last November, but his defense lawyer went to the state Court of Appeals weeks later, seeking to appeal that ruling and ask for a new trial.

In a one-page ruling received by Warren County prosecutors on Wednesday, the high court concluded there were not sufficient legal issues in West’s case to justify an additional appeal.

The ruling means that West has exhausted his appeals in state court, and will have to serve the remainder of his sentence, barring unusual developments such as new evidence being brought forward or a successful federal lawsuit.

“We’re thankful that this chapter is closed, and we can continue the hard work of trying to recover,” said Charlotte’s grandfather, Robert Knarr.

West, 26, of Lake George, was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter and lesser counts for driving a boat after drinking and using illegal drugs and causing the July 25, 2016 boat crash that claimed Charlotte’s life and seriously injured her mother.

Testimony showed he was speeding and failed to yield the right of way to a boat that was piloted by Knarr, then sped away from the scene and hid for hours before surrendering to police.

The case went to trial during the spring of 2017, with West being found guilty of most charges, including the weightiest charges, and sentenced to 5 to 15 years in state prison.

His lawyer, Cheryl Coleman, appealed, claiming that a juror was wrongly dismissed before testimony began, that blood test evidence wrongly influenced the grand jury that indicted West and that evidence was not sufficient to convict West of manslaughter and assault. The Appellate Division of state Supreme Court denied the appeal, and Coleman sought leave to go to the highest court to re-argue the issues.

Without explanation, the Court of Appeals denied that application.

Knarr praised the Warren County District Attorney’s Office for its efforts with the case.

Warren County District Attorney Jason Carusone said he was glad the McCue and Knarr families could reach the end of appeals with another major hurdle crossed in the court case.

“I’m thankful the Court of Appeals agreed with our analysis of the law,” Carusone said.

Coleman could not be reached for comment Wednesday, her office saying she was handling a trial this week.

West is serving his sentence in Collins Correctional Facility in western New York, and is eligible for parole on April 16, 2022.

He was convicted of felony manslaughter, assault, criminally negligent homicide and leaving the scene of an accident without reporting as well as non-criminal boating while ability impaired by alcohol, reckless operation of a vessel and misdemeanor criminal possession of a controlled substance and was acquitted of vehicular manslaughter, vehicular assault and boating while ability impaired by drugs.

The crash, which drew national media attention, has resulted in a wide-ranging crackdown on impaired boating on Lake George, including ending the Log Bay Day party at which West partied in the hours before the crash, as well as more boat safety programs on the lake.

Fatal boat crash on Lake George, trial

Michael Goot / MICHAEL GOOT,  

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a laugh with Eric Behrens, assistant resident engineer for Washington County, and Chris Ward, acting regional director of operations for the state Department of Transportation during a visit to DOT's Kingsbury facility on Wednesday. Cuomo was in town for a news conference saying that the state is ready for a winter storm, which will primarily affect areas north and east of Glens Falls. 

Democrat-controlled NY state Legislature starts 2019 session

ALBANY — The New York state Legislature gaveled into its 2019 session Wednesday in historic fashion as Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins became the first woman to lead the state Senate.

Stewart-Cousins, of Yonkers, takes over the Senate as a record-high 70 women are serving in the 213-seat Legislature. The veteran lawmaker, first elected in 2006, was tapped to lead the Senate after Democrats wrested control of the chamber from Republicans in the November elections.

“We are going to tell the rest of the country that New York is about opportunities — not barriers, not walls, not divisions,” she told a packed Senate chamber before ticking off several legislative priorities for the year.

The top issues for this session include early voting, new campaign finance limits, the elimination of cash bail and the new rules giving child molestation victims more time to file lawsuits or seek charges against their abusers.

Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, was elected speaker of the Assembly for a third time. Like Stewart-Cousins, Heastie is black, making 2019 the first time in state history in which both chambers have been led by African-American legislators.

Following their victory in the Senate, Democrats now control both chambers and hold the governor’s office for the first time in a decade. One-party rule is expected to ease the way for long-sought liberal priorities that had been blocked by the Senate’s former Republican leaders.

“Now we have the opportunity to work side-by-side with the New York Legislature to push for a bold, progressive agenda that will move our communities forward,” said Jessica Wisneski, co-executive director of Citizen Action of New York, which wants lawmakers to approve early voting, public financing of campaigns and new limits on corporate donations.

Other top issues for 2019 include the legalization of marijuana, the authorization of sports betting and possible congestion tolls for Manhattan.

Republicans say they’ll look to push back on Democratic proposals that they think would hurt the economy or negatively impact upstate and rural areas, while acknowledging that their reduced numbers will make it difficult.

“We want to partner with Sen. Stewart-Cousins,” said Sen. Joe Griffo, a Rome Republican, “but we can and we will and we must speak out when things occur.”

Griffo is standing in as the GOP’s Senate minority leader in the absence of Sen. John Flanagan, of Long Island, who is seeking treatment for alcohol dependency.

Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, reflected on the first day of the Legislature:

“I am eager to get back to work on behalf of the people of the North Country. This year will be very challenging, but I remain optimistic that we can accomplish many great things.

“I hope to continue to fight for our fair share of school aid funding to ensure our children have a bright future. We need to continue to address the infrastructure issues we are facing in our Adirondack communities, including funding for advancements in our broadband infrastructure and cell service, money to combat environmental issues as well as addressing the growing EMS coverage issues.”

Wednesday saw the session’s first kerfuffle as Republicans unsuccessfully pushed back on a Democratic plan to create a new ethics committee — led by Democrats — that would have the power to investigate allegations of misconduct by lawmakers. Republicans demanded even representation on the panel but were rebuffed.

The Democrats’ lock on power won’t guarantee success, however, on a long list of proposals they hope to advance. First they’ll have to reach agreement on the details with each other and with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

On marijuana, lawmakers will have to decide how many retail shops should be allowed, how they should be licensed and regulated and the appropriate tax rate for the product.

On congestion tolls, they’ll need to figure out which vehicles to toll, whether discounts should be given to local businesses or low-income commuters, and how to best use the revenue to support upgrades to New York City’s aging subways.

The GOP had controlled the Senate for the past decade thanks to a faction of renegade Democrats who worked with the GOP conference. The November elections put Democrats back in power, giving them 40 seats compared to 23 for Republicans. In the Assembly, Democrats hold 106 of 150 seats.

The six-month session includes 61 scheduled days of legislative activity. Cuomo is expected to deliver his State of the State address and his state budget proposal before the end of the month. The state budget is due by April 1.

Lawyer issues stall high-profile cases

QUEENSBURY — Continuing health issues for a prominent local defense lawyer have indefinitely stalled two high-profile criminal cases in Warren County Court, including the case of a man accused of stealing more than $440,000 in grant funding that was earmarked for Lake George environmental projects.

David J. Decker, former director of Lake George Watershed Coalition, was scheduled to stand trial starting Monday for a 22-count indictment, accusing him of looting hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal funding in recent years.

His lawyer, Joseph Brennan, has been dealing with health issues since last fall, and is unable to handle the rigors of a felony trial, his law partner, William White, told Warren County Judge John Hall on Wednesday. White said it was unclear when Brennan will be able to resume working, which has left Hall trying to figure out how to proceed with his cases under speedy trial guidelines.

Brennan represented both Decker and former Lake George Rescue Squad treasurer and captain Edward G. “Grant” Gentner, who was accused of stealing more than $20,000 from the organization.

Gentner, 50, of Lake George, was standing trial on grand larceny and falsifying business records last October when Brennan fell ill, resulting in a mistrial.

Both Decker and Gentner were summoned to Hall’s court on Wednesday to explain whether they had secured new counsel, as White said he could not shoulder his regular court caseload as well as Brennan’s trials.

“I just can’t commit to a multi-week trial,” White told the judge.

Both defendants told Hall they have met and/or discussed their cases with lawyers from the Albany area. But Decker said lawyers at the five firms he contacted could not commit to his case because of scheduling issues. Hall said he would ensure that whatever lawyer took the case would have enough time to prepare for trial.

He adjourned both cases until Jan. 23 for updates on their efforts to hire new lawyers, with no trial date set in Decker’s case.

Hall, though, kept Gentner’s case on the trial calendar for jury selection on Feb. 25.

Both men have pleaded not guilty and maintained their innocence. They are free, pending further court action.

Decker, 67, of Burnt Hills, oversaw projects for the Lake George Watershed Coalition, a network of groups that pursued projects to protect Lake George, for more than 15 years, handling virtually all of the financial paperwork for millions of dollars in work.

An engineer, Decker led the organization as an independent contractor from 2001 until his arrest last year, working much of the time from an office in Lake George Village Hall.

Questions arose about finances during his tenure, as Warren County awaited state funding reimbursement on a number of projects, and a state audit rapped several towns for lax oversight of the coalition’s funding.

Decker has pleaded not guilty to counts of grand larceny, corrupting the government, tax fraud and falsifying business records in a 22-count indictment. He has been accused of diverting state and federal funding to himself over a period going back to 2012, and has claimed the money he received was legitimate payment for his work. But he is accused of tax fraud for not claiming the money on his state taxes in 2012, 2013 and 2014.