Greenfield’s request for new discrimination trial denied

  • HAIGH

  • WEDEGARTNER

Staff Writer
Published: 9/30/2022 6:01:52 PM
Modified: 9/30/2022 5:57:39 PM

GREENFIELD — The judge in the discrimination lawsuit filed by former Greenfield Police Officer Patrick Buchanan has denied the city’s request for a new trial.

The decision comes roughly three months after the motion was filed by lawyers representing Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. and the city of Greenfield, and five months since the May 6 jury verdict in Hampshire County Superior Court that found Haigh and the Police Department discriminated against Buchanan when he was denied a promotion in 2014. Buchanan was the department’s only Black officer at the time.

The memorandum announcing the decision, filed by Judge Mark Mason on Thursday, concluded “no miscarriage of justice has occurred.”

“Obviously, the judge labored over this, as we all did at the trial,” commented Timothy Ryan, one of the attorneys representing Buchanan. “It’s gratifying he saw it the same way we saw it.”

Attorney Leonard Kesten, one of the lawyers representing the city and Haigh, called the decision “appalling.”

“It’s a disservice to the judiciary and his personal attacks on me are unwarranted, inappropriate and unbecoming of a judge,” Kesten said by phone on Friday. “It’s unfair to the city of Greenfield and really unfair to Chief Haigh.”

Mayor Roxann Wedegartner, who was in the process of reviewing the judge’s decision Friday afternoon, said it was disappointing to learn the city’s request for a new trial had been denied.

“It is what it is,” she said. “It’ll be up to the insurers to determine where to go from here. … If they decide to go for an appeal, we’re still pretty much in the same place we were yesterday.”

Wedegartner said the city’s insurance group, Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association (MIIA), has said that “absent a new trial, they would move immediately to file a notice of appeal.”

Kesten said he thinks things will play out differently when it is appealed.

“This decision will never stand,” he said. “I expect the Appeals Court will reverse it.”

In his memorandum, Mason states that the city’s lawyers raised five unsealed issues and one sealed issue — a reference to a conversation that took place between Haigh and Lt. Todd Dodge, a lead witness in Buchanan’s case, outside the courtroom on April 22 — to argue they were entitled to a new trial.

“All were either raised at trial or could have been, and some were raised by the defendants, and ruled on by the court, multiple times,” Mason wrote. “This court need not, therefore, hear the defendant’s motion.”

Those issues include an objection to the admission of evidence regarding a Confederate flag displayed on then-Sgt. Daniel McCarthy’s garage.

“Even if the jury did not follow the court’s instruction to disregard the Confederate flag evidence — of which there is no indication — there was no miscarriage of justice,” Mason wrote. “The jury heard ample compelling evidence from which to infer racial bias.”

Kesten said allowing “evidence of the Confederate flag into this trial was inappropriate from day one” and the way this trial was conducted was like nothing he’s ever experienced in his long career.

“The Confederate flag had nothing to do with this case, but the court, despite four motions to exclude it, allowed it as evidence until the last day of the trial. It poisoned this case,” Kesten said. “I have never seen anything like it and I’ve conducted 150 jury trials.”

Additionally, Kesten said Mason issued this opinion “without oral argument, which I have never seen.”

Jurors heard evidence of “repeated and significant violations of GPD’s rules and governing law by white officers without significant discipline,” he said, by way of example. Those violations included driving while under the influence and improper handling of evidence. Buchanan, in contrast, “was repeatedly investigated and disciplined for relatively minor infractions.”

The city’s lawyers also argued that Dodge’s perception of how Haigh allegedly described Buchanan — “lazy” and “doesn’t fit the bill” — was irrelevant. But Mason found the lawyers’ rationale for this argument to be flawed.

Mason also argued in his decision that the “incivility” of Kesten and the reprimanding that followed, was not a basis for a new trial. The jury was, in fact, told to not draw an inference against Kesten or his clients as a result.

Further, Mason did not agree that providing jurors with a revised verdict slip and a supplemental instruction constituted a “reversible error.” He explained that when jurors were charged on May 2, three of the questions were “problematic” in that they didn’t refer to a specific defendant — in other words, Haigh or the city of Greenfield. Having not received proposed revisions to the verdict slip from the city’s attorneys, the court supplied one.

And finally, attorneys in favor of a new trial argued that the questioning of one juror, in particular, was “not conducted in a fair and impartial manner.” This juror had applied for but did not get a job in Greenfield. Mason asked if this would impact his ability to sit on the case, to which the juror responded no.

Mason’s memorandum concluded by granting Buchanan the right “to serve his supplemental request for fees and costs arising from post-trial motion litigation” within 14 days, which Ryan said he intends to do.

“The judge’s decision,” Ryan said, “confirms this was a valid verdict in Pat Buchanan’s favor from the get-go.”

From here, Kesten said Mason will issue an order of entitlement to fees for the motion of a new trial, after which he will issue a final judgment. After that final judgment is issued, the defense will have 30 days to file a notice of appeal, which, if appealed, Kesten said can play out over the course of one or two years.

“I feel so bad for the city and the chief,” Kesten said. “It’s just not fair. That’s all we asked for was a fair trial and we didn’t get one.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne. Chris Larabee contributed reporting to this story.


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