The notoriously lenient Bronx judge recently under fire for freeing an alleged child killer without bail has been under investigation by the state following claims of unprofessional and abusive courtroom behavior, The Post has learned — amid speculation she could be pulled from handling criminal cases.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct opened a probe into Supreme Court Judge Naita Semaj last year after the jurist angrily ejected a veteran supervisor in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office from her courtroom during a hearing on April 1, 2022, sources familiar with the case said.
“She’s a better defense attorney than an actual defense attorney,” a source familiar with the probe said. “People have to know how she really is.”
Sources alerted The Post to the probe in disgust after hearing that Semaj was applying for a big promotion to be nominated as the presiding justice of the Appellate Division, First Department, which oversees all disputed criminal and civil cases in Manhattan and The Bronx.
The soft-on-crime judge, who was elected to a 14-year term on the bench in November 2021, has earned a reputation for letting accused teenage criminals loose on the streets, even prompting rebukes from Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Rumors have been swirling among court staff that Semaj will be reassigned to civil cases, sources said Thursday.
“Court officials have discussed putting Semaj in Civil Court. It’s under consideration,” said Court Officers union president Dennis Quirk.
The potential reassignment is the result of blowback over Semaj’s handling of a murder case — the strangling of 15-year-old Corde Scott — in which she sprung stepdad and accused killer Tyresse Minter without bail and berated the dead boy’s mom.
“You have to treat the victims’ families with respect,” Quirk said. “She didn’t treat the victim’s mother with respect.”
But even before Semaj’s shabby treatment of the grieving woman, the Commission on Judicial Conduct had launched a probe into the judge.
It came after the magistrate lit into Bronx prosecutors over a plea deal offer — and even kicked one out of the courtroom, sources said.
Semaj disagreed with the seven year prison sentence offered to Sammy Santiago, a then-17-year-old charged with attempted murder and criminal use of a firearm for allegedly shooting at two other young men fleeing a cell phone store, hitting one of them in the leg, on July 21, 2021.
She railed that the offer was too severe, claiming Santiago was acting in self-defense against the two others after they approached him inside the store in what authorities believe was a gang-related dispute.
Santiago had a physical confrontation with one of the men facing him, while the other man who got behind him pulled out a sharp object, which Santiago didn’t see.
His gun went off during the altercation — and he then allegedly fired shots as the two men fled the store, according to a court transcript and sources with knowledge of the case.
Ilya Kharkover, then the deputy chief for the Bronx DA’s violent crime enterprise bureau, offered a five year plea after the judge complained — which only seemed to set her off more.
“What you are going to do is step out of my courtroom,” Semaj fumed, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by The Post.
A startled Kharkover then said “absolutely” — to which Semaj snarkily replied, “Have a great day. Thank you.
“Because you are, clearly, clearly, a waste of everything.”
She then continued to rant about Kharkover: “To step foot in here and pretend that there’s been a full consideration of the facts and circumstances and at the end of it that’s how you got to seven years in jail is nonsense.
On April 1, 2022, The Bronx District Attorney’s office presented to Judge Naita A. Semaj a plea deal for Sammy Santiago, who had shot at two people, wounding one, when he was 17.
Semaj: Good afternoon. You can have a seat. So it’s my understanding the People’s offer in this case is seven years jail.
Ilya Kharkover from the Bronx DA’s office: That’s right, Your Honor.
Semaj: Help me understand how you got there.
Kharkover: This is attempted murder. It’s a very strong case. He shot at somebody more than one time as they’re fleeing. It’s an appropriate offer, Your Honor.
Semaj: Have you seen the video?
Semaj: Okay. So in the video you don’t see the two people come into the store as Mr. Santiago’s in the store; they come into the store with their hands in their pocket, clearly, as if they have something. They immediately approach Mr. Santiago; take whatever is in their pocket out. One of them, they bigger dude, has something that’s, at least, 7 inches long. The other guy has something, immediately, starts looking like he’s trying to stab Mr. Santiago in the side.
Help me understand how the only attempted murder you see is the one Mr. Santiago — excuse me. Help me understand. So you’re so concerned about violence? What happened with those two because they, clearly, came into the store with weapons —
Semaj: — with weapons. Attempted to immediately start stabbing Mr. Santiago. Did you see that part in the video?
Kharkover: Yes, Judge, but what about when they flee and he shoots after them; is anybody stabbing him then?
Semaj: Are you serious right now?Semaj asks if a case has been pursued against the two men Santiago shot at.
Kharkover: I’m trying to find out the answer to Your Honor’s question.
Semaj: Well, you should know the answer.
Kharkover: It’s not my case, Your Honor.
After back and forth, Kharkover amends the plea deal.
Kharkover: For what it’s worth, is the defendant interested in five years?
Defense attorney Walter Fields: Was that addressed to me?
Semaj: You’re not going to answer that. (To Kharkover) What you are going to do is step out of my courtroom.
Semaj: Have a great day. Thank you. Because you are, clearly, clearly, a waste of everything.
Semaj: That makes no sense.
Semaj: And do not return.
Kharkover: Clearly. Clearly.
The attorney leaves, leaving another lawyer, Josh Couce, representing the people. Judge Semaj rants.
Semaj: This whole position that your office is taking that you want to grandstand: Lock them all up. Anybody that has a gun, lock them all up.
The problem is everybody else who’s doing all these other horrible things; who’s randomly attacking people in the street; just because they don’t have a gun you’re, basically, giving all those people a free pass and that sends a horrible message.
. . . You cannot tell me they were going in there to do anything besides trying to kill him (indicating). But no one gives a damn about that.
And when I say no one I mean the People; your office; or the NYPD because no one cares. Instead, you filed these complaints where it just looks as if he’s, literally, standing around causing a problem and pulling out a gun.
. . . And how do you know that somebody was actually shot?
Couce: Because the victim went to the hospital. We have medical records; we have video surveillance. We have the medical records. We have —
Semaj wonders why the wounded man isn’t charged with a crime as well. The lawyer responds it was up the NYPD and the best he could be charged with is a misdemeanor. Semaj isn’t having it. She insists they reconvene the next week and indicates she’s going to go easy on Santiago.
“It is complete nonsense. I am disgusted. That is absolutely, insane,” she seethed.
“His attitude — he need not ever step foot in this part again. Ever step foot in this part again,” Semaj said in her tongue lashing.
Apparently addressing the other prosecutor present, assistant district attorney Joshua Couce, Semaj took aim at the DA’s office — claiming prosecutors were interested only in gun crimes.
“This whole position that your office is taking that you want to grandstand: Lock them all up. Anybody that has a gun, lock them all up,” she said.
Kharkover and Couce declined to comment.
The DA’s office, according to sources, conducted its own internal probe of prosecutors’ complaints about Semaj.
A senior attorney assigned to the official judicial watchdog inquiry into Semaj conducted interviews, sources said, as recently as October.
A spokesperson for the Commission on Judicial Conduct declined comment.
The watchdog panel can impose discipline if it finds a judge engaged in misconduct — ranging from an admonishment or reprimand, censure or removal from office.
Patrice O’Shaughnessy, a spokeswoman for Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, said, “We respect the integrity of the confidential processes of the Commission on Judicial Conduct.”
Asked what she thought of Semaj’s treatment of the prosecutors in the Santiago case, the spokeswoman said, “Of course we expect everyone in the courtroom to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Semaj was not available for comment. Calls to connect to her chamber for comment were referred to the state Office of Court Administration.
“Complaints made to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct are confidential, so if there is or is not one we wouldn’t be aware, nor would we be able to verify its veracity,” said OCA spokesman Lucian Chalfen.
Semaj recently came under a firestorm of criticism for releasing Minter, a 28-year-old parolee, without bail in the alleged strangulation killing of his stepson.
The questionable decision provoked such outrage that Hochul rebuked Semaj by announcing that state corrections officials had rearrested Minter for allegedly violating parole.
Semaj added insult to injury in the case — berating grieving mom Karen Glenn for showing up late to the arraignment, just before refusing to set bail for the boy’s accused killer.
OCA would not confirm that Semaj was being reassigned.
“Bronx judges are assigned and sit based on the needs of the court. Those assignments are determined by the Chief Administrative Judge in consultation with the Presiding Justice of the appropriate appellate department,” Chalfen said in a statement. “Currently we are in the process of evaluating the judicial needs of a number of courts in New York City and will have specific changes in the near future.”
Read the full article here
Discussion about this post