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Court upholds Bronx man’s conviction for possessing heroin in Ellisburg

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A state appellate court has rejected a Bronx man’s claim that Jefferson County Judge Kim H. Martusewicz made a mistake by letting him act as his own attorney at a trial that resulted in a 10-year state prison sentence for heroin possession.

Rhashay R. Whitfield, 32, was convicted at trial in November 2010 of third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, fourth-degree conspiracy and second-degree criminal impersonation. It had been alleged that he was a passenger in a vehicle halted by sheriff’s deputies in March 2010 in which 160 packets of heroin were found on Interstate 81 in the town of Ellisburg. He also was charged with presenting a fake identification card to police.

In an appeal to the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, Mr. Whitfield maintained that Judge Martusewicz never conducted the requisite “searching inquiry” to ensure that Mr. Whitfield knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to be represented by an attorney. The court rejected that claim, ruling Friday that contrary to Mr. Whitfield’s contention that his lack of legal knowledge was evident, Judge Martusewicz “repeatedly warned him of the risks” associated with acting as his own attorney.

The court did agree with Mr. Whitfield that it was improper for prosecutors to condition the plea of a codefendant, Harry Roland Jr., Brooklyn, upon his promise not to testify at Mr. Whitfield’s trial and to threaten Mr. Roland with a more severe sentence should he do so. However, the appellate court determined that Mr. Whitfield was not prejudiced by the improper plea condition, as Judge Martusewicz allowed Mr. Roland to testify on Mr. Whitfield’s behalf.

At trial, Mr. Roland testified that the drugs found in the vehicle belonged to him. However, under questioning by Mr. Whitfield, he declined to say whether Mr. Whitfield knew he possessed the drugs, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. Mr. Roland pleaded guilty to third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and was sentenced in November 2010 to a year in the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building.

The appellate court further rejected Mr. Whitfield’s claim that he was denied a fair trial because prosecutors refused to grant Mr. Roland immunity to testify at the trial. The court said that Mr. Roland did testify and claimed ownership of the drugs, noting that the testimony could have proven damaging to the prosecution.

The court also denied Mr. Whitfield’s claim that he received a harsher sentence for exercising his right to trial, stating that the sentence was not unduly harsh or severe.

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