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Former Gouverneur mayor’s indictment dismissed amid prosecution ‘mishandling’

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CANTON — A St. Lawrence County judge has dismissed a grand larceny indictment against former Gouverneur mayor Christopher A. Miller, citing what he called the prosecution’s “pervasive mishandling of the questioning of witnesses in this case.”

Judge Jerome J. Richards gave the prosecution leave to present one of the two counts to a different grand jury under a Dec. 20 order in which he maintained that the conduct of Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Becker “impaired the integrity of the grand jury proceeding.”

St. Lawrence County District Attorney Nicole M. Duvé on Friday declined comment on Mr. Becker’s handling of the case, saying that he will not return from vacation until Monday and that she has not had a chance to speak with him about the order.

Mr. Miller, of 171 Rowley St., Gouverneur, was accused of drawing up a fraudulent land-sale contract and selling an Edith Street home to Ronald and Heather Sliter for $50,000 in March. As a joint owner of the property, he did not have the right to sell it, investigators alleged.

Elected to the post in fall 2011, Mr. Miller served as Gouverneur’s mayor for less than a year before resigning in August, six days before he was arrested.

Under the indictment, Mr. Miller was facing a charge of third-degree grand larceny in connection with the house sale, as well as a charge of first-degree offering a false instrument in connection with a bankruptcy petition in which he allegedly listed the home as an asset.

Mr. Miller declined comment Friday, saying he had not had the chance to fully discuss the issue with his attorney, John W. Hallett of Watertown, whom he said has been ill.

Mr. Hallett did not respond to calls seeking comment Friday afternoon.

According to the judge’s order, Mr. Hallett challenged the legal proof of larceny supporting the first count, as well as the venue in the second count, given that the bankruptcy filing was made in Oneida County.

Mr. Hallett also argued that the prosecution allowed hearsay as part of the grand jury proceeding and improperly interrupted a juror’s questions. He successfully requested permission from the court to examine the grand jury minutes as part of a pre-trial disclosure conference.

Judge Richards later reviewed the minutes in light of the issues raised by Mr. Hallett. His first finding was that the court “has no territorial jurisdiction over filings in a government office in another county,” and that the false instrument charge must be dismissed and may not be put before another grand jury.

The judge went on to say that “the entire indictment must be dismissed” due to Mr. Becker’s conduct.

“The prosecutor asked so many leading questions that it was clear he, not the witness, was testifying as an unsworn witness without personal knowledge of the facts,” Judge Richards wrote, adding that Mr. Becker also improperly allowed hearsay evidence “without a proper foundation or clarifying instruction.”

“It is nothing but confusing to allow a witness to testify to what he or she heard someone else say, and then to instruct the grand jury that this is not offered for the truth of the statement but merely to show its impact on the listener,” the judge continued. “Clearly this was a subterfuge to present hearsay as though it were competent evidence, and that is not permitted.”

Finally, Judge Richards wrote, Mr. Becker “repeatedly interrupted one or more jurors who were trying to ask clarifying questions, and basically strong-armed them into abandoning the attempt to clarify.”

As a result, the court “cannot determine whether the evidence was legally sufficient,” the judge concluded.

With the prosecution still permitted to present the grand larceny count to a new grand jury, Mr. Miller remains under probationary supervision.

“We are certainly going to take a look at getting it back to a grand jury,” Ms. Duvé said of the grand larceny count, adding that her office also would examine whether the false-instrument count could be presented in a different jurisdiction.

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