AG eyes whether credibility issue may undermine some Rockingham County convictions
BRENTWOOD — State prosecutors are investigating whether defendants in Rockingham County may have grounds to seek new trials because the county attorney's office failed to disclose that one of its employees had a potential credibility issue, the New Hampshire Union Leader has learned.
In one case, a Danville man serving a 40 to 80 year prison term has already been notified that he might be entitled to some kind of legal relief from his 2006 conviction.
The employee is Tara Longo, a victim-witness coordinator who was placed on administrative leave Nov. 6 in the wake of state and federal investigation into the county attorney's office, according to interviews and court records.
Her boss, embattled County Attorney James Reams, is now the focus of a criminal investigation scrutinizing his management of a forfeiture account, his alleged lewd behavior toward female employees and other operational issues in his office.
While the probe has publicly remained fixed on Reams, state prosecutors have been quietly soliciting input from defense lawyers about cases that Longo has participated in during her 16-year career in Rockingham County.
"Apparently, when Ms. Longo applied for her job, she presented a (resume) that was not entirely accurate," Randy Hawkes, executive director to the state's Public Defender program, said in a Dec. 4 e-mail obtained by the New Hampshire Union Leader. "When the (county attorney) later became aware of the misrepresentation, Ms. Longo was allowed to remain in her position, despite the obvious credibility question raised."
That credibility question is now coming back in a 2006 sexual assault trial involving a twice-convicted sex offender.
Longo testified in the March 2006 trial of Harold Baird, then a 70-year-old Danville man with sexual assault convictions from 1974 and 1990, according to interviews and a review of court records.
Baird was convicted by a jury of aggravated felonious sexual assault for molesting a five-year-old girl from China.
A judge sentenced Baird, now 77, to serve 40 to 80 years in state prison.
Longo testified for the state to rebut claims by Baird's attorney, Rodkey Craighead, that the victim's testimony had been coached.
The Rockingham County Attorney's Office, under its interim leadership, recently sent a letter to Craighead notifying him for the first time that Longo had a potential credibility issue. Craighead declined to comment about the letter he received regarding the matter.
Interim-County Attorney James Boffetti acknowledged that Craighead had been notified about the testimony in Baird's case, but said he could not elaborate further.
"I am aware of the issue and this office takes that issue very seriously," Boffetti said. "We will fulfill our ethical obligations."
Longo joined the office in 1997 and earns $55,733.50 annually, according to county records.
She is one of three victim-witness coordinators that work in the Rockingham County Attorney's Office. Their duties include guiding victims of crime through the criminal justice process, including plea hearings and trials.
County Commissioners placed Longo and Deputy County Attorney Tom Reid on paid administrative leave Nov. 6 following Reams' suspension by the Attorney General's Office.
Their job status has not changed as of Wednesday.
A Listserv e-mail that cited the Attorney General's investigation into Longo's cases was sent to about 280 New Hampshire criminal defense lawyers statewide.
"I am aware of that e-mail, and I can confirm that it is accurate," Associate Attorney General Jane Young said, declining to comment about the investigation.
Longo's attorney, Adam Bernstein, said whatever issues the Attorney General's Office may be investigating, it has nothing to do with his client.
"From my perspective, this has no negative impact on my client," he said. "My client had no obligation to testify and make a disclosure."
Bernstein said that unlike New Hampshire attorneys, Longo was not bound by the same ethical obligations to report any potential issue about her credibility – even if she had one.
"It has nothing to do with Tara at all," Bernstein said. "It has to do with whether the Attorney General, Jim Reams or Tom Reid had an ethical obligation to disclose it."
Reams said that he has "always been opposed" to letting his victim-witness coordinators testify.
He said that he was aware of one trial where Longo testified, but added that the decision to put her on the witness stand was made "on the fly" and without his permission.
"I don't believe I knew for quite some time afterward," Reams said.
Reams said he believes that team leaders – prosecutors who provide some oversight in the office – were notified about Longo's issue.
But a memo written by Reams about "the potential of having to disclose the falsehood" regarding Longo was never disclosed prior to Longo taking the witness stand, Reams' lawyer, Michael Ramsdell, said in a court motion.
Legal experts say that New Hampshire prosecutors are required to disclose any evidence favorable to a defendant prior to trial. New Hampshire's Professional Rules of Conduct also mandate that prosecutors are required to notify defendants of information that could be favorable to their case, they said.
"If a witness has some credibility problem, that needs to be turned over to the defense," said Andrew Schulman, president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Schulman said that in his 28 years of practicing law, he has seen nothing like the investigation and legal disputes unfolding with the Rockingham County Attorney's Office.
Baird has not requested a new trial at this point.
But New Hampshire's courts have largely viewed evidence that is favorable to a defendant as a constitutional right, according to Charles Temple, director of the Criminal Practice Clinic at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.
If someone like Baird complained that he was deprived of favorable evidence he was entitled to, then prosecutors would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt it would not have changed the outcome of the trial, Temple said.
"A lot of cases can come down to the credibility of a witness," he said, noting that the obligation to report the discovery never goes away.
"It's a continuing obligation," he said.
No criminal charges have been filed in the county attorney probe. Reams is due back in court today to contest his temporary suspension by Attorney General Joe Foster.