A New York judge has rejected the claim of a Brooklyn man who said his bid to have his murder conviction overturned was mishandled by a judge later found to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Judge Raymond Rodriguez of State Supreme Court said he found no evidence that his former colleague’s illness had affected her decision to deny the man’s motion to have his 1999 murder conviction vacated.
Judge ShawnDya Simpson went on medical leave in September 2019, days after her decision in the murder case. In July 2020, after she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, she retired from the bench as part of an agreement struck with the Commission on Judicial Conduct. The decision ended a once-bright legal career for Simpson, who was just 54 and whose rise from the housing projects of Brooklyn had been hailed as an inspiring tale for young women of color.
Nelson Cruz, who had been convicted at age 17 of shooting a rival dead in the streets of Brooklyn, had spent two decades insisting on his innocence and seeking a hearing to have his conviction revisited.
Simpson granted Cruz that chance in 2018. Cruz and his lawyers later presented alibi witnesses and offered evidence that Cruz’s case had been tainted by the work of unscrupulous detectives. Simpson previously had vacated two murder convictions in cases involving the detectives.
In August 2019, Simpson called Cruz’s lawyers and prosecutors to court and from the bench rejected Cruz’s bid. Cruz and his lawyers had been so confident of prevailing that they had brought new clothes for Cruz to wear as he walked free.
When Simpson’s illness was made public a year later, Cruz’s lawyers argued her handling of the case suggested she’d been impaired at the time of the August 2019 decision. They cited delays and alleged inconsistencies in her handling of the case and included the claim of the judge’s husband that she had been showing signs of impairment as early as 2018. They asked for a hearing to be held to assess the judge’s condition at the time of the 2019 ruling.
Prosecutors argued throughout that Cruz had been properly convicted, that his evidence of innocence was faulty and that Simpson’s denial of his bid for freedom had been coherent and persuasive. They argued there was no need for a hearing to explore the timeline and possible impact of her illness.
This week, Rodriguez, assigned the case by the Office of Court Administration, agreed. He wrote that Simpson’s analysis of the faults with Cruz’s arguments of innocence were reasonable and based on the evidence. He said that while Alzheimer’s is a terrible and progressive disease, Cruz had not presented detailed medical evidence that Simpson was compromised in August 2019. He held that Simson’s husband’s assessment of his ailing wife was not specific enough to be compelling.
Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, said in a brief statement, “We agree with the judge’s decision.”
An earlier review ordered by court officials of scores of rulings made by Simpson over her final months as a judge concluded there was no evidence that she had clearly erred as a consequence of her illness.
Cruz’s lawyer, Justin Bonus, said he was shocked by Rodriguez’s ruling. He said he found it inconceivable that Rodriguez would not conduct a hearing at which Simpson’s illness, its timing and implications could have been more thoroughly explored. That her ruling could be interpreted as reasonable didn’t mean it was just, and the only fair way to resolve that would be a true inquiry into her health at the time of her ruling, he said.
Bonus repeated the claims he’d made in court filings, saying Simpson’s demeanor, obvious confusion and habit of issuing rulings only to agree to reconsider them remained as stark proof of her impairment.
In an interview, Bonus said the record made clear that before her final ruling, Simpson had found at least two of Cruz’s witnesses to be credible and was aware of problems with the reliability of the sole witness at trial who had identified Cruz as the gunman. Yet when she ruled on Cruz’s motion in August, it was as if she had forgotten her earlier declarations, he said.
Bonus said Rodriguez’s ruling did nothing to address Simpson’s shifting assessments of Cruz’s case. He noted that Simpson in August 2019, after denying Cruz’s motion from the bench, had said she was nonetheless open to hearing arguments on the merits of what she’d just decided. Simpson also promised to issue a written opinion laying out her reasoning, but she never did after she went on medical leave.
“An innocent man’s future rests on determining once and for all if the judge handling his case was impaired when she denied his motion to vacate his conviction,” Bonus said. “Judge Simpson promised to issue a written decision that would detail the facts and law that she relied upon to deny the motion. Unfortunately for Nelson Cruz, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s before that decision ever came forth. This condition raised questions about her competency during the entire proceedings. Judge Rodriguez’s ruling shows little genuine interest in settling the profound question of her actual health. How on earth would we not want to hear from her doctors and family and those with the greatest knowledge of her condition?”
Jacob Walthour, Simpson’s husband, did not respond to a request for comment on Rodriguez’s assertion that he had not been specific enough about his wife’s concerning behavior in her last year on the bench.
Walthour did say Rodriguez had erred in his decision when he claimed Walthour had submitted a formal affidavit concerning his wife’s health. Walthour had merely spoken with one member of Cruz’s defense team. Walthour had told ProPublica last fall that, if asked by court authorities, he was open to discussing his wife’s decline and its possible impact on her performance on the bench.
Rodriguez did not respond to a request for comment about his mistaken reference to Walthour’s affidavit.
Experts who have studied the question of aging and impaired judges have long noted that proving their impairment impacted a particular ruling is extremely difficult.
“It would be difficult to determine after the fact the ways in which gradual but real cognitive decline might affect courtroom decision-making and rulings,” Francis Shen, a lawyer and professor who has studied America’s aging judiciary, told ProPublica in an interview late last year. “Just because rulings are not ‘irrational’ does not mean they are not potentially problematic.”