New York Daily News

October 23, 2005

Drug lord in cop kill eyes slide

Byrne's pals outraged

By BARBARA ROSS
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

The fight by a drug kingpin - implicated in one of the most notorious New York cop killings - to seek early release from prison under the state's newly relaxed Rockefeller drug laws moves a step closer early next month.

John McCaskell has petitioned a court to get out from behind bars, sparking a backlash from the Manhattan district attorney's office and furious police leaders.

A hearing on his case is now scheduled for Nov. 3.

McCaskell is using the easing of the 1970s statute, championed by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, that imposed long sentences on crooks caught trafficking. A number of inmates have used the relaxing of the law to win freedom, and McCaskell, with 13 years behind bars, is trying to do the same.

Serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for selling cocaine, McCaskell's name figured prominently in the death of rookie cop Edward Byrne.

The 1988 cold-blooded assassination of 22-year-old Byrne - shot five times in the head with a .357-magnum while guarding a prosecution witness in Queens - stunned the city.

The Manhattan DA argues that McCaskell, once a powerful Queens drug lord, deserves to stay behind bars because of his role in the disappearance of the weapon used to kill the young officer. When McCaskell, now 37, was sentenced for his drug crimes in 1992, it was also alleged that he got rid of the murder weapon.

Prosecutors now say that fresh video evidence from two of the men convicted in the assassination - Scott Cobb and Todd Scott - backs up the claim.

According to court papers seen by the Daily News, Cobb has told police that immediately after the shooting, the triggerman, David McClary, refused to toss the gun off a bridge.

Three hours later, the hit team met at a diner, where McClary was sitting with a "right-hand man," a drug dealer known as Born - McCaskell's nickname.

According to papers filed by Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Jeanine Laurnay, it was during this meeting that McCaskell was given the murder weapon to dispose of.

"Only a top member of the group would be trusted with the knowledge not only of who the homicide participants were, but of where the murder weapon could be found," she argues.

McCaskell has never been charged in the coverup and was not one of the gang members involved in the murder.

His lawyers say he's now entitled to a reduced sentence because he was convicted of a nonviolent crime - first-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance for possession of 300 vials of cocaine, enough to produce $11,000 worth of crack.

Margaret Ratner-Kunstler, McCaskell's lawyer, contends there were five drug dealers nicknamed Born operating in Queens at the time of the cop's murder. She says that prosecutors had relied on statements from a police informer to tie her client to the disposal of the weapon, and that her client was behind bars when the second witness claims McCaskell admitted in a street conversation to dumping the gun.

She added that it was unfair to keep McCaskell imprisoned based on uncharged crimes and accusers who are "neither reliable nor accurate."

But Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said yesterday that McCaskell should have been charged as an accomplice in Byrne's killing. "If you speak of killing a police officer, if you hid the gun, if you helped those who pulled the trigger, you should be charged with the murder. He should not be allowed leniency."

A ruling will come after oral arguments before Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Marcy Kahn on Nov. 3.