Ruling favors murder convict
Court says lawyer should have sought evidence suppression
Evidence from a 1997 homicide that was used to convict a Shawangunk man of murdering his estranged wife should have been the subject of a suppression hearing before his trial, an appeals court has ruled.
The Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, Third Department, ruled Wednesday that the failure of the defense attorney to seek sup-
pression of evidence before the trial deprived Vincent A. Zeh of his constitutional right to meaningful legal representation. As such, the court ruled, a suppression hearing must now be held.
Attorney Norman Effman, who represented Zeh on appeal, said the decision does not automatically overturn the murder conviction. He said a conference is scheduled for Dec. 15 in Ulster County Court with acting Judge Anthony McGinty and Dutchess County Assistant District Attorney Robert Knapp, who is the special prosecutor in the case. At that time, the parties will discuss the timeline for the suppression hearing, as well as whether the issue could be resolved without that hearing or having to hold another trial, Effman said.
Effman said if the suppression hearing does go forward, he would seek to keep the prosecution from being able to use any evidence gathered during the 26 hours Zeh was interrogated by police or from six separate search warrants that were issued. The search warrants, in part, resulted in police seizing a sneaker, sweatshirt and underwear with the victim’s blood on them, he said. Effman said the items belonged to Zeh.
If that evidence is successfully suppressed, it leaves prosecutors with little evidence to present at a new trial, Effman said. He said it then would be up to prosecutors to determine whether they want to proceed to trial.
Effman said the appellate
court’s decision does not dismiss the original indictment against Zeh, rather “it’s just like a step back in time.” He said the ruling sets the clock back to the time after the indictment but before the trial.
Zeh, now 76, was convicted of murder in 1998 for fatally stabbing his wife, Kimberly, 22 times on April 11, 1997, in the Ulster County town of Shawangunk. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in state prison and remains incarcerated at the medium-security Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica.
After Kimberly Zeh was killed, Vincent Zeh was questioned by police at his home and for 26 hours at a state police barracks without a lawyer present and in “a room that may have been locked at times,” according to an earlier appellate ruling.
Effman said the case had been “up and down” through the courts, leading to Wednesday’s decision. He said the most recent appeal was on the basis that Zeh had received ineffective assistance of legal counsel during the trial.
In its Wednesday decision, the appeals court said Zeh’s trial attorney, Michael Sussman, testified about his strategy for not seeking to suppress the evidence. Sussman testified he wanted to show Zeh was cooperative with police officers during the interrogation and that Zeh wanted to testify at the trial, according to the decision. The appeals court said, though, that Sussman was under no obligation to call Zeh as a witness in a suppression hearing and that the attorney admitted the interrogation was “unusual.”
Additionally, the court said Zeh had a “colorable basis” to argue his oral statements to police were obtained in violation of his right to counsel because he was questioned about the homicide and an earlier incident without his attorney present, even after asking for a lawyer.
In February 1997, prior to Kimberly Zeh’s death, Vincent Zeh was arrested and questioned in connection with an incident in which he wielded a gun and feigned a suicide attempt in an effort to gain her attention, the court decision said. The decision said Zeh had an attorney at that time and the same police officers involved in the February 1997 questioning were also involved in the April 1997 interrogation. Additionally, Sussman acknowledged that prosecutors used the February 1997 incident to establish Zeh’s motive for killing his wife, the decision said.
Sussman, whose law practice is in Orange County, said he had not seen the decision as of early Wednesday afternoon. He said, though, in regards to the statements Zeh made to police during the interrogation that he did not feel there was anything incriminating about them.
“I didn’t feel suppression was warranted in that situation,” Sussman said, adding that Zeh agreed at the time.
Sussman said there was a strategy involved and that he felt prosecutors could not use anything Zeh said because it was not incriminating.
Sussman said he does not vividly remember the issue with the search warrants and so could not comment further.
Vincent Zeh in 2015