In defense of victims and the justice system

As someone who practices law here in the Adirondacks, I have made a conscious decision to work on cases and the area of law of my choosing. As a former prosecutor and defense attorney in Essex County, I have seen both sides of our legal process. I can tell you from my experience that the legal system, although not perfect, provides enormous benefits for those who cannot defend or afford themselves of “legal counsel.” Much has been reported regarding assigned counsel in Essex County and the lack of local attorneys to provide this public legal service. Regardless, whether you are a local or an “out of towner” charged with a crime or even a foreign national, if needed, you will be provided with a court-appointed attorney paid for by taxpayers.

The recent guilty plea of India native Tanveer Hussain, previously charged with felony sexual abuse, is one such example of how our justice system works for victims of a crime. Like most readers of this newspaper, I have followed this case with much interest. As we all know, in our system the accused in a criminal proceeding is innocent until proven guilty. In this case, justice prevailed and the process worked.

After his arrest, the defendant was immediately provided a court-appointed attorney but eventually hired a private attorney. In full disclosure, during the summer, I was asked to consider representing the defendant. I respectfully declined and recommended other qualified attorneys.

As a mother of a two young children and a former assistant district attorney having represented victims of sexual abuse for Essex County District Attorney Sprague’s office, I can tell you that it is gut-wrenching to watch the pain on the face of a victim sitting in the same courtroom as their accuser while being asked to relive every detail of the abuse they endured.

This case has been very emotional for those who have supported Hussein; letters to the editor and social media are proof of that. But what of the rights of the victim? It is irresponsible to refer to a 12-year-old child as “manipulative looking” or to reprimand the mother for not being a responsible parent, personal opinions of a few. Those comments are commonly referred to as “victim-shaming,” which doesn’t excuse the actions taken by a 24-year-old man and doesn’t make him a victim.

The “allegations” were confirmed by law enforcement against Hussain. According to widely reported information, the Saranac Lake village police investigated the charges with help from the state police Computer Crimes Unit in Ray Brook and had eyewitness evidence as well as evidence of electronic communications between Hussain and the victim. An Essex County grand jury was impaneled and found that there was enough credible evidence to indict and charge Hussain with a felony. That’s a powerful statement when a panel of local citizens, people without any personal stake in the outcome, review the evidence and make a decision to indict a case.

Tanveer Hussain was offered a plea deal in March of 2017 but decided to plead not guilty and go to trial, which was his right. Those supporting him expressed frustration that he was “stuck here,” but the wheels of justice turn slowly. It is not unusual for cases such as these to take several months before trial begins. There was a grand jury presentment and arraignment, for which the Office of Court Administration provided an interpreter. At some point in this process, there was a change of attorney. All of these factors contribute to required steps in the legal process.

In the end, Hussain decided to forgo the trial which he was entitled to and plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge, “endangering the welfare of a child.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a federal agency, has now taken over and will deport Hussain back to India. The district attorney does not have the authority to deport a foreign national. This was a national news story that clearly attracted their attention.

Today we are witnessing a long-overdue national movement to expose those who would use their power to victimize others. The justice system hopefully will work to right those wrongs; public opinion certainly has. There will be trials with attorneys and juries of one’s peers. But we must be mindful and respectful that while the accused has rights, the victim has rights as well. Sexual abuse of any nature may cause long-lasting trauma for the victim; in this case I hope the victim, her family and the community members can move on with their lives, as they should.

We live in a region with a strong tourism-based economy, which relies upon major sporting events and visitors. It is important that we make all feel welcome and safe. But we should expect visitors to act responsibly and enjoy the area with respect for those of us who live here.

Like many of us who call the Adirondacks home, I am grateful to those who protect our quality of life and keep our families safe. Many thanks for a job well done by our law enforcement agencies, in particular our District Attorney Kristy Sprague and our system of justice.

Allison McGahay is a Lake Placid lawyer and former Essex County assistant district attorney.