Grievance Against Charles Testagrossa

Who: A group of law professors filed an ethics complaint in May 2021 against attorney Charles Testagrossa, alleging Testagrossa engaged in misconduct while prosecuting George Bell on behalf of the Queens District Attorney’s Office (QDAO). The complaint was filed with the Grievance Committee for the Tenth Judicial District and it was transferred to the Committee for the Second, Eleventh and Thirteenth Judicial Districts, the body that handles ethics complaints against attorneys in Queens. The following summary is based on the complaint.

What: The ethics complaint, also known as a grievance, is based on People v. Bell. According to the complaint, the Supreme Court, Queens County, ruled that Charles Testagrossa and his colleague, Brad Leventhal, suppressed exculpatory evidence, misled the trial court and other parties, and permitted false testimony to stand. Brad Leventhal and Charles Testagrossa prosecuted the trial of George Bell, and Leventhal alone prosecuted the later trials of Rohan Bolt and Gary Johnson. In People v. Bell, the court reversed the wrongful convictions of Bell, Bolt, and Johnson after 24 years of incarceration.

In the Bell, Bolt and Johnson cases (all addressed in People v. Bell), the prosecution failed to provide crucial exculpatory evidence to the defense, including evidence that other people may have committed the crimes charged against these three men. While agreeing to reverse the convictions, the Queens District Attorney’s Office claimed that Testagrossa and Leventhal’s prosecution of Bell, Bolt and Johnson had been “in good faith.”

At length, the Queens Supreme Court rejected that notion. The court explained:

“For all of the reasons discussed above, the repeated denial of any connection between [the other people] and these crimes was a complete misrepresentation. Most troublingly, it was a misrepresentation made by a prosecutor, ADA Testagrossa, whose own handwritten notes refuted it. This was, in short, not a good faith misstatement; it was a deliberate falsehood.”

People v. Bell (2021) 71 Misc 3d 646. 664.

The court found that circumstances cast “significant doubt” on the claim of good faith. Since the prosecutors sought the death penalty, the court found that they should have exercised a heightened duty of care during the discovery process. According to the court, they did not:

“The extensive record before the court, however, makes clear that the opposite occurred—that the District Attorney’s Office, instead of ‘err[ing] on the side of disclosure’ [citation omitted], deliberately withheld from the defense credible information of third-party guilt that was in its possession and that had in fact been investigated, and documented in handwritten notes, by the lead prosecutor at Bell’s trial, ADA Testagrossa. The prosecution, in other words, completely abdicated its truth-seeking role [citation omitted], perhaps because it feared that the evidence being sought by the defense would substantially undermine the likelihood of obtaining a conviction.”

People v. Bell (2021) 71 Misc 3d 646, 659-660.

The prosecution’s conduct left the Court with the “distinct impression… [of a] pattern of behavior that was calculated to deprive the defendants of fair trials, which is particularly egregious given that the death penalty was being sought against 19-year-old George Bell.”  

What rules are involved: The complaint notes that prosecutors wield immense power, the power to seek punishment on behalf of the state, and should be held to the highest ethical standards. The grievance alleges that Testagrossa’s conduct violated the following ethical rules:

  • Rule DR 7-103(b) ((from the Code of Professional Responsibility, later replaced by the Rules of Professional Conduct) required the prosecutor to make “timely disclosure…of the existence of evidence, known to the prosecutor or other government lawyer, that tends to negate the guilt of the accused, mitigate the degree of the offense or reduce the punishment.” 
  • Rule DR 7-102(a)(3) and DR 7-109(a) similarly required disclosure of, and prohibited knowing concealment of, certain evidence.
  • Rule DR 1-102 prohibited attorneys from engaging in conduct “involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation,” conduct that was prejudicial to the administration of justice, or any conduct that adversely reflected on their fitness to practice law.

What can be done about it: The law professors’ complaint calls for the Grievance Committee to investigate and issue public discipline, including disbarment (revoking Testagrossa’s law license). It also calls for a broader investigation into other cases prosecuted by the same prosecutor, and to determine whether QDAO’s supervising and managing attorneys complied with their duties under Rule 5.1 of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct.

Update: As of January 1, 2024, the Grievance Committee has not informed the complainants whether there was (or will be) an investigation, what any investigation revealed, and whether discipline was (or will be) imposed as a result of this alleged misconduct. Deprived of such information, the public has no way to evaluate whether this government body is doing its job. We call on the Grievance Committee to make its proceedings and findings in this matter transparent to the public.

Any member of the public is able to see an attorney’s record of public discipline on the Attorney Detail Report.

Note: This is a summary based on the grievance, click on the grievance below for more detail. The grievance authors do not have personal knowledge of any of the facts or circumstances of the attorney or case(s) mentioned; the grievance is based on court opinions, briefs and/or other documents cited therein.