Reading between the 30 lines

Three things freed Thomas Bianco from prison: Tireless work from his defense team (including his wife), the discovery of 30 lines in an original police report, and a judge’s accusations that the DA who prosecuted the case was a corrupt liar.

Bianco’s defense team had already brought to light a number of issues in order to win their client’s freedom. The prosecution’s star witness recanted his testimony that Bianco had confessed killing Monson. Two jailhouse snitches claimed they heard another man — the prosecution’s star witness — confess to the killing. The defense had hired a private investigator, and according to newspaper accounts, more than a half dozen lawyers worked on his appeals. But it was the discovery of 30 lines of withheld notes from a police report — 30 lines that named another man — that proved most damaging.

In those lines, an Auburn police officer recounts his activities of the day, including conversations with ex-convict John Grossman and William Komanecky, one of the last people to see Monson alive:

1:40 p.m.  Detailed to Old Columbian Rope Company to meet Officer Malone. On arrival was shown a 1973 … station wagon 4725AAB owned by John Grossman of 15 Fort St., Auburn, NY, a real light green wagon. (not beat up, but had a few rust spots on same). Went into the American Challenger Corp, and did talk with John Grossman and he said he was living with his girlfriend at 15 Fort St. and was with her the weekend, and that he will be moving to 4 Garfield Place after the 1st of the month.  His girlfriend is Patricia Barto. Later went to Prison and did pick up photo of Grossman, an ex-con. As Sgt. Komanecky thought that this could be the man, as subject had attended CCCC.

In truth, this mention could have been a footnote in the case. It reads like an example of cops “rounding up the usual suspects” during an investigation. And if you were investigating the case of a missing young girl — one last seen getting into a green car driven by a dark-haired man — Grossman would fit the bill.

Instead, these lines became the key to Bianco’s release when Judge Patrick Monseratte found that District Attorney Paul Carbonaro withheld them from the defense at Bianco’s trial.

District Attorney James Vargason investigated the defense’s claim that it never saw those 30 lines prior to trial — 30 lines, they said, that could have been used to cast doubt on Bianco’s innocence. He contacted the original trial judge, who faxed the copy of the police report he had from trial to Vargason. The 30 lines were missing. Vargason called the withholding of evidence indefensible, and announced he would not retry Bianco.

But where did those lines come from? Why were they withheld? And how did the defense find them?

Carbonaro insists the full report was turned over to the Bianco defense team prior to trial, and that assertion has been backed by his chief assistant, Dennis Sedor.

In any criminal case, the prosecution is bound by law to turn everything it has against a defendant over to the defendant’s lawyers, including exculpatory evidence — evidence that tends to work against the prosecution’s case.

That goes to the heart of Carbonaro’s argument: He believes a redacted version may have been turned over to the defense at some point during pre-trial proceedings, but that a full version was eventually turned over.

So where did the defense get the full report, if not from the prosecution? And if the defense had those lines all along, is it possible Bianco’s lawyers made a mistake? Or even lied about not getting the 30 lines?

Police reports are not, in general, evidence. In this case, the “report” was made up of notes taken by an officer. And the lines above show the officer received a tip, talked in person to the subject in question, and believed Grossman had an alibi.

But there are more problems with the 30 lines than just where they came from and whether they were withheld. Most notable is that William Komanecky, in interviews after Bianco’s conviction was tossed out, denied that he ever mentioned John Grossman when speaking to police. He said he didn’t know who Grossman was. And police confirmed Komanecky’s story. It was the officer who first mentioned Grossman — but in the courtroom, the lines from the police report were made to sound like an eyewitness identification.

Judge Patrick Monserrate wrapped up the case against Bianco with a nice little bow, with help from the defense team and the prosecution. The 30 lines — to Monserrate — was enough to toss the case and seal the records. It was a case, he said, of prosecutorial misconduct — though Carbonaro was never charged or even censured for his alleged actions. The true miscarriage of justice, then, was not the conviction of Thomas Bianco — who has never been found innocent, but the failure of the criminal court system to find the truth behind those 30 lines..