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Carmine Russo

Other New Jersey Exonerations
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In December 1995, 52-year-old Newark, New Jersey Police Lt. Carmine Russo was indicted by an Essex County grand jury on charges of beating a handcuffed suspect.

Russo, an 18-year veteran who headed the department’s gang intelligence unit, was accused of beating 27-year-old Thomas E. Harris on May 15, 1995 after a foot chase through backyards in the Roseville section of Newark.

Russo was charged with aggravated assault for allegedly kicking Harris and stomping on his chest while he was lying on the ground in handcuffs. Also indicted were Detectives Victor Jorge and Carmine Buonsanto, who were accused of official misconduct and witness tampering for allegedly covering up the incident and inducing Harris not to press charges.

At the time, Russo was already under indictment on charges of beating a car theft suspect in a different incident. He was indicted in November 1995 on charges of beating Vidal Rodriguez Jr. after mistaking him for the suspect on January 17, 1995. Rodriguez said Russo and detective Joseph Juliano kicked and punched him following a car chase. Rodriguez needed 16 stitches to close a wound that he said came from being kicked in the head.

In November 1996, a jury acquitted Russo and Juliano of beating Rodriguez. Numerous officers, including Russo and Juliano, testified that after the car Rodriguez was driving was pulled over, he ran from the vehicle. When officers tried to arrest him, he was flailing his arms and kicking his legs, and suffered his injuries while trying to keep from being handcuffed.

Prior to the trial for the second incident, Russo’s lawyer requested a photograph that was taken of Harris taken shortly after his arrest. The trial prosecutor, Perry Primavera, claimed that the photograph had been “inadvertently destroyed.” The prosecutor claimed that Newark police officer Tytriyanta Hicks advised him that the roll of film containing Harris’s photograph was damaged and as a result, that photograph did not appear on the roll.

Russo went to trial for the second incident in March 1997 and chose to have his case decided by a judge without a jury. By that time, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office had dismissed the charges against Buonsanto and Jorge, and reduced the charge against Russo to simple assault.

Susan Benedetto, who worked on the second floor of a building at 182 Roseville Avenue in Newark, testified that on May 15, 1995, she was in a back room having lunch when she heard “a lot of noise and commotion out in the back of the next door building.” She said she looked out the window and saw Russo and another officer arrest Harris. She said the officers grabbed him, patted him down, and took him between two cars that were parked along a fence.

There, she said, they handcuffed him and left him propped him on his knees with his head resting against a car while they began searching the area. Benedetto said Russo was yelling, “Where is it? Where is it?” The officers then left the area to continue the search. When they returned, Benedetto said, Russo “approached him on his right side, [and] started screaming at him again, ‘where is it, where is it?’”

Harris did not respond, nor did he struggle or attempt to flee, she said. Russo then picked up his right foot and kicked Harris “with a strong enough blow to really kick the man over. (Russo) kicked his right shoulder, and then the man fell on his left side, rolled onto his back, and with that, (Russo) stomped on his chest.”

Benedetto said Russo “stomped him so hard the man shook.” She said she called 911 and was referred to Internal Affairs. Benedetto reported that Harris was wearing a white sweatshirt, and there was “ a big footprint right on his chest.” She also said Mary Clair Scerbo, Robin Lightner, and perhaps one or two other people were present, although they were facing away from the window.

Harris testified he was walking down Roseville Avenue when he saw the police driving past and staring at him “kind of funny.” He said the officers stopped their vehicle and chased him into a back yard where he attempted to hide because he had outstanding warrants.

They found him and handcuffed him. He said that he never resisted or fought with the officers. He said Russo “came like he wanted trouble” and either pushed him or punched him to the ground. He said Russo “got directly on my chest, both his feet,” and asked where the drugs were. He said Russo was “stomping” on his chest, “not hard, but he was stomping on me to let me know he means business.”

Harris admitted he spoke to someone from Internal Affairs at the police station and said that he had not been assaulted. But he explained that he made that statement because Russo and the other officers had advised him that if he denied being assaulted, he would be released immediately. Harris said he was released within ten minutes after he arrived at the station.

Scerbo testified that she looked out the window, and saw two white males searching for something and a black man between two cars. She could not determine if he was handcuffed. She said the black man never attempted to flee nor was he was struggling.

Scerbo said she was then called away, and as she was walking, she heard Benedetto say, “Oh, my God, they are kicking him.”

Russo testified that he, Buonsanto, and Jorge were stopped by a citizen who said there was a man with a gun by a phone booth. As they neared the phone booth, Jorge jumped out of the car, saying something about a “drug deal going down.” Russo said he followed Jorge in pursuit of Harris. He said Jorge captured and cuffed Harris, and put him with his legs crossed in a kneeling position. The two of them then searched for drugs and the gun.

At one point, Russo said he saw Harris attempting to get up, so he grabbed him and pushed him down. He denied kicking Harris or stomping on his chest.

Jorge testified that as they approached the telephone booth, he saw Harris passing what appeared to be narcotics to a woman. As he opened the door, Harris fled. After he caught Harris, Jorge said he found packets of drugs in the area. Jorge said he saw Harris try to get up, and that Russo pushed him down but did not kick him. Buonsanto testified that he drove around the block in case Harris managed to escape. When he returned, Russo was holding Harris. Buonsanto said he then placed Harris in their police vehicle.

On March 5, 1997, Essex County Superior Court Judge Benjamin Cohen convicted Russo of simple assault. The judge noted, “It frankly pains me to do so, and I agree with the prosecutor that frankly were it not for the testimony and evidence presented by Ms. Benedetto, if this were a case where I had to decide between the credibility of Mr. Harris alone, as opposed to that of not just Lt. Russo but the other officers who were there, I probably would not have been able to conclude as I have, but there is a lot more here than just the uncorroborated testimony of a man like Mr. Harris.”

The judge declined to impose a jail term or probation, and ordered Russo to pay a $500 fine and forfeit his job.

About two months later, in May 1997, prosecutor Primavera forwarded a copy of an administrative report submitted by Special Agent Louis Portella of the Essex County Prosecutor's Office to Russo’s new defense attorney. The report said that before trial, Portella met with Harris because Harris wanted to become an informant. Portella said Harris told him “the cops didn't beat me, they (the prosecution) want me to say that they did.” Portella said in the report that he told Harris to tell the truth at the trial. The prosecution reported that Portella never communicated that conversation to anyone until after Russo was convicted.

Meanwhile, a private investigator for Russo learned that Benedetto had been fired from her job because she had lied about her educational background; falsified her resume; fabricated a transcript; fraudulently declared that she had taken courses she had never taken; and falsely claimed to have received degrees and honors.

The investigator also discovered that Benedetto had lied about her address to a state agency in order to prevent her former husband from seeing his children, had smoked marijuana, had suffered from unexplained blackouts, and had been charged with disorderly conduct.

The defense filed a motion for a new trial based on the evidence about Benedetto and the information in Portabella’s report. The motion also contained several sworn affidavits that included:

• Officer Hicks said she had no recollection of ever speaking with the prosecutor or anyone else from the prosecutor's office about the photograph. She said she had no idea whether a photograph of Harris was lost or destroyed.

• Newark police Lt. Anthony Ambrose said he had attended a meeting prior to the trial with the trial prosecutor and others, and saw the prosecutor remove the photograph from his folder.

• Jackie Finch, director of a shelter adjacent to where Harris was arrested, said he told an investigator for Russo’s former co-defendant, Jorge, prior to trial that he saw the incident and “never, at any time, throughout the course of the incident, observed any of the police officers mistreating” Harris.

• Officer Louis Santiago, who was not interviewed by Russo’s attorney and did not testify, said he transported Harris to the police station. He said Harris was not injured, did not complain of any injuries, and had no footprints on his sweatshirt

• Officer Rocco Bonassissa said he took the photo of Harris, and that Harris had no visible injuries and his clothing had no footprints.

• Lt. William Capra said he interviewed Harris about the incident on the day he was arrested and that Harris’s clothing had no footprints. Capra said he examined Harris with his shirt off and saw no injuries. Harris did not request any medical treatment, he said.

• Thomas Paranzine, a private detective, took photographs of the scene, which showed that the location where Harris claimed to have been beaten was not visible from the window where Benedetto claimed she viewed the beating.

The motion for new trial also said that a review of the prosecution file revealed a memorandum from Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Gary Bogdanski, who prosecuted Russo in the first case that resulted in Russo’s acquittal. The memorandum said that Harris sustained no injury during the assault; there was no corroboration to support Harris’s claim that he was told that if he did not report the assault to an Internal Affairs Officer he would be released on his own recognizance; the release of the victim was consistent with all policies of the prosecutor's office; and three other independent witnesses who saw the arrest denied Harris was assaulted.

The judge ruled that the evidence was cumulative or would not have changed the verdict, and denied a hearing on the motion for new trial. The defense appealed and in July 2000, the Appellate Division of the Essex County Superior Court reversed and remanded the case for a hearing.

In June 2001, Russo was granted a new trial and the prosecution dismissed the charges. He subsequently was reinstated with $168,900 in back pay.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/6/2018
State:New Jersey
County:Essex
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1995
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2001
Sentence:Fine
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:51
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No