An East Hampton man, Melvin C. Smith, 46, was arrested on April 10 by East Hampton Town police on charges of assault in the second degree, a class D felony, and possession of a deadly weapon, a knife, as a misdemeanor. The charges stem from a fight on Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton on the afternoon of April 9. Joseph Giannini, Mr. Smith’s attorney, has alleged that race was a factor in Mr. Smith’s arrest.
Mr. Smith is black; the other man involved is white.
Detective Lt. Chris Anderson said Friday that Mr. Smith had injured a man with whom he had “an ongoing dispute.” The alleged victim, Mark Wesnofske, suffered lacerations and told police that Mr. Smith had a knife, Detective Anderson said.
Because Mr. Smith had more than two felony convictions, East Hampton Town Justice Catharine A. Cahill said at his arraignment last Thursday that under New York’s penal code, she was not permitted to set bail on the new charges. He remains in Suffolk County jail in Riverside.
During the arraignment, Mr. Giannini said his client was innocent and also disputed the number of convictions on Mr. Smith’s record. “He has only two prior felony convictions,” Mr. Giannini told Justice Cahill, arguing that Mr. Smith should be eligible for a bail determination because he had yet to be sentenced for what he said would be Mr. Smith’s second conviction.
“He has seven felony convictions, even if you don’t want to count his latest,” Maggie Bopp, the Suffolk County assistant district attorney on the case, argued as the attorneys’ exchange became heated.
“That was 1986, over 25 years ago,” Mr. Giannini answered, adding that two of the felony convictions Ms. Bopp referred to were for incidents in prison, which, he said, should not be counted when considering bail.
Ms. Bopp said Mr. Smith had been convicted of rape and sodomy in 1986, when he was 18, and she read off, in rapid succession, a series of felony convictions, including four from the 1986 case as well as two convictions stemming from separate prison incidents in which Mr. Smith was said to possess a homemade knife.
Justice Cahill told Mr. Giannini that she would not have the case argued during the arraignment. Sheetal Shetty, an assistant district attorney with the county’s Major Crime Bureau, has now been assigned to the case, however. Ms. Bopp would not comment yesterday, and Ms. Shetty was not available.
In July of last year, Mr. Smith was arrested by East Hampton Town police and charged with failing to update his address on the state’s register of sexual offenders. He pleaded guilty to that charge, a class E felony, and was due to be sentenced yesterday.
“They arrested him on a technicality,” Mr. Giannini said Friday of that arrest. “The police knew full well where he lives,” adding that Mr. Smith and his family had lived on the same East Hampton street since the mid-1970s.
Of the ongoing dispute, Mr. Wesnofske told police that Mr. Smith was frequently “hanging out” at the house of Brandon Albert, Mr. Wesnofske’s next door neighbor. “I don’t like Melvin hanging around my house,” he told police, because of concern over Mr. Smith’s status as a sex offender.
He said Mr. Smith had instigated the fight, and was armed with a knife of some sort, cutting him several times.
According to Mr. Giannini, Mr. Wesnofske went to Southampton Hospital, but left a short time after getting there, going instead to police headquarters, where he made the allegations that led to the arrest. Mr. Wesnofske, whose statement to the police was provided to The Star by Mr. Giannini, told police that he had several wounds, including a possibly damaged nerve in his arm.
Mr. Giannini said his client told him the fight was over money, but that he did ot have a knife.
Mr. Giannini said Mr. Smith had paid Mr. Wesnofske, an auto mechanic, $90 to do some work on his car. The fight, Mr. Giannini said, was over the money. Mr. Giannini also said that Mr. Smith would submit to a polygraph test.
Mr. Giannini referred to his allegation that a racial factor had been involved in the arrest, saying police acted without speaking to Mr. Albert, whom, he said, witnessed the event and made the arrest solely on the word of the alleged victim. Mr. Albert is also black. He was present at Mr. Smith’s arraignment last Thursday, and as he left the court, he called Mr. Smith’s arrest “ridiculous.”
Mr. Smith, who has spent much of his adult life in prison, “has worked very hard the past few years to put his life together,” Mr. Giannini said Friday. “They’re holding his past against him. They won’t let it go.”
According to the lawyer, a grand jury did not indict his client on the felony charge on Tuesday.
Michael Sarlo, captain of the East Hampton Town Police, responded to Mr. Giannini’s charge that race played a role in the arrest, saying it was baseless. “I’m confident that a thorough investigation was done, and race did not play a part in the arrest,” he said.