New York Daily News

July 7, 2004

New twist in Blackburne row


  Robbery suspect Derek Sterling leaves Queens Supreme Court by the normal exit yesterday. Judge Laura Blackburne previously had Sterling hustled out a back door.

A robbery suspect who avoided arrest with the help of a Queens judge may be innocent after all.

But that doesn't mean Queens Supreme Court Justice Laura Blackburne is off the hook.

Prosecutors all but acknowledged yesterday they lacked evidence to prosecute Derek Sterling when they agreed to his release without bail.

"He's an innocent kid," said defense lawyer Joseph Justiz. "The People have really tried to remedy a bad situation."

Blackburne provoked a storm of police protest on June 10 when she had Sterling, 24, hustled out a back door of the courthouse in Kew Gardens after a detective sought to place him under arrest.

Blackburne accused the cop of using a ruse to nab Sterling, who was living in a Jamaica, Queens, drug treatment center and appearing in court on another case.

The move prompted calls from cops for her removal as well as protests in her support by the NAACP and an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Meanwhile, Sterling was arrested and another judge ordered him held on $50,000 bail.

But Justiz argued yesterday that the evidence against him was weak.

In court papers, he said Sterling, who cops claimed checked out of a drug treatment program to rob a man May 23, was actually in the facility at the time.

Justiz also said that one witness who first fingered Sterling could not identify him in a lineup and a second offered a disputed identification.

He added that Sterling passed a lie detector test administered yesterday by the district attorney's office.

Prosecutors have not dropped the charges, but they did not object when Acting Supreme Court Justice John Latella revoked Sterling's bail. The judge had him escorted back to the treatment center by NYPD detectives.

"It doesn't change anything," said Al O'Leary, spokesman for the Patrolman's Benevolent Association. "Judge Blackburne had no knowledge of guilt or innocence at the time. She was interfering with a legitimate police action."

Court officials would not comment on the case, citing the pending investigation.

But one of Blackburne's staunchest defenders, City Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn), said the weakened case against Sterling "vindicates" Blackburne.

"They were making a mistake on him and they are making a mistake on Mrs. Blackburne," Barron said.