BY JEFF ZELL / AJT //
Jay Abt is a 1995 graduate of Emory Law School. He tells the AJT that the Israeli Consulate inquired about his availability to represent Hemy Neuman in the murder of Rusty Sneiderman. Abt says that as an active member of Atlanta’s Jewish Community, so he decided against it. However, he is a friend of Shayna Citron, the former best friend of Andrea Sneiderman and a key prosecution witness, and he agreed to represent and advice her for free.
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Citron testified that Andrea told her that “Rusty was shot” on the telephone before Andrea Sneidrman arrived at the hospital. Since Andrea acknowledges that she did not know Rusty was shot until she arrived at the hospital and was told by staff, Citron’s account of their telephone conversation is a crucial element in the prosecution’s case. Abt agreed to an interview with the AJT last week.
AJT: Is Shayna Citron currently under a gag order?
Jay Abt: To my knowledge she is not. Let me put it this way. I have never seen the actual gag order that the court issued. I don’t’ know if it includes the witnesses in the case or not. My understanding is that it includes the lawyers directly involved in the case and there’s a separate gag order for attorney Esther Panitch. But that was amended shortly after the original gag order. I don’t know if the original gag order includes the witnesses. I’ve never been served with a copy so I would have to assume that the gag order does not include the witnesses in the case and that Shayna is not subject to the gag order. However, having said that, our strategy from the get-go has been that Shayna would not do any media or public statements of any kind.
AJT: What were your thoughts Monday when it first came out that DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James was dropping the three most serious charges-all three of the murder charges?
JA: I will tell you exactly what I told Robert James to his face, and to several other media outlets- I think he’s a fantastic lawyer and a great prosecutor and I think that he’s the best person for the job, but I am tremendously disappointed that he chose to drop the murder charges. I think that he could have prevailed in a murder indictment. But g-d, it’s not my call, it’s his call. I know what the evidence is in the case. I mean, I don’t know every single piece of every single detail. But, I largely I know what the evidence is in the case on the prosecution side and I think I have a pretty good idea of what the defense will argue and what evidence they would have presented and I think that you let a jury decide that. Do the best job you can as a prosecutor or as a defense lawyer, and then the jury makes the decision of guilt. I think to have dropped the murder charges and to take the case away from that jury was a mistake. And I’m disappointed, but it’s not my call.
AJT: Why do you think he did it, and to a lay person it kind of makes it look that the case is weak.
JA: So it’s a complicated answer. If Robert were sitting here, he would tell you that the evidence had changed since the indictment was filed, that he went back and re-interviewed witnesses, and that some of their stories had changes and that the defense presented him with evidence that exonerated her. I have talked to the defense lawyers, I know what many of the witnesses would testify to and I think that that is an inaccurate description by Mr. James.
I don’t think the evidence has changed, I don’t think the witness’ testimony has changed. I know that the defense had no smoking gun that would have exonerated Andrea. There was never enough evidence from the get-go to indict her or win a murder against her in trial, and they’re entitled to that opinion. What the real reason is that Mr. James chose to drop the charges, is – I would have to speculate, but I think that there’s really a couple of things at play.
The first is, he didn’t want to lose a case in front of the national media. He didn’t want to take the risk of losing a murder trial in front of the entire country. And by dropping the murder charges, it was very strategically effective. The national media has sort of closed their doors for this case. You don’t see it on Nancy Grace or Headline News or “Dateline” or “20/20,” all of the national media that was covering before. They’ve packed up shop and gone away.
He made a very smart, strategic move. He could have lost, he might have lost. Then, you know, his perception was that it would make him look very, very bad. However, I think he looks very, very bad for dropping the charges.
I don’t think it’s that he never really had a case. Look, a grand jury indicted the case. There was enough evidence for it to be brought in front of a jury. We can go over what the evidence is that I think would have allowed him to prevail at the trial, but I think the reason she dismissed it is that he was afraid to lose.
The second reason, possible reason – and these are this is speculations on my part – but the second educated guess from an insider, as to why they dropped the murder charges is a little more complicated. That in Burrell Ellis (DeKalb County CEO currently under indictment). He has chosen as an elected D.A. to be very active. Some D.A.’s, when they’re elected, just act as a CEO. But Robert is actually a very good trial lawyer and he doesn’t want to lose out on the opportunity to continue to prosecute cases, which he’s been doing for 14 years. So I think that unfortunately, maybe he’s prosecuting too many cases.
He’s got this Burrrell Ellis indictment. The law says, that if he doesn’t go to trial against Burrell Ellis before September 1st, Burrell gets his job back. So he’s got to try that case, and that’s a month-long trial. So now he’s faced with two, month-long trials that he’s lead counsel on, back to back.
It’s possible that he decided to drop the murder charges against Andrea to dramatically reduce the length (of the trial) and make it a one or two week trial, probably get the conviction against her and make himself look good. Then, that will give him more time to prepare for, and probably try Burrell Ellis. I mean, that’s got to be somewhere in the back of his mind – that it was done a strategic move so that he could win both cases without looking terrible or letting Burrell Ellis get his job back.
But that whole thing with Burrell Ellis is very political, highly politicized. People are taking sides within the Democratic Party in DeKalb County, whether you’re on the Robert James side or you’re on the Burrell Ellis side. I’m not commenting on the case in general, I’m just commenting on his ability to be lead counsell on back-to-back, month-long trials. It’s very rare to have a trail that lasts a whole month. To have two of them back-to-back, when do you sleep or eat?
What I am saying is, there is enough evidence, in my opinion, to put it in front of the jury and to have gotten a conviction. I think that is a reasonable opinion to have and a reasonable view to have, based on the evidence that’s out there. To say absolutely that she is guilty of murder or that she is not guilty of murder, is an extremist position, because anyone in the practice of law for a significant period of time – in the criminal defense arena – understands that it is all one big grey area. It is a trial!
Most of the time juries get it right, and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes people get convicted of crimes they didn’t commit and sometimes people are found not guilty for crimes they did commit. And that’s the reality. It’s an imperfect system. What I’m saying is, there’s enough evidence to proceed to trial. There’s certainly enough that a grand jury granted an indictment. That is a decision that the jury makes, and to take that away from the jury, which is what Robert James did, is a mistake.
AJT: What do you make of the publicity and interest this case has had?
JA: I think that’s sad the way that our American society has evolved. Because had Andrea Sneiderman or Rusty Sneiderman or Hemy Neuman, had they all been African American no one would have cared. You know Atlanta is a typical big city. There’s probably on average a murder every day.
AJT: But it had happened at a day care?
JA: Oh, I mean I could point to murders that have happened at a sundry of different places that would be of interest. The issue, the reason that this case has received such national attention is because it happened in a place like Dunwoody and it’s among white people, OK? Look at Jody, Arias (convicted of murder), look at Andrea Sneiderman, look at Casey Anthony. And you know, you look at even Trayvon Martin, because Trayvon, while being an African American victim, you have a person who is half Caucasian and half Hispanic committing the crime. The media gets worked up and interested in something when there are white people committing crime against each other, or white people committing crime, period.
Today someone is going to get murdered in Atlanta, south of I-20 and it’s going to be a horrific event for the family of the person that commits the murder and the family of the person who is murdered. It will change their lives inextricably and permanently, and if we’re lucky it will get a 30 second clip on the evening news. And that will be the only attention that anybody pays to it. The only factor that I can seem to point to is race. It’s either race or socio-economics, or some combination thereof. That’s just the way we are.
AJT: You said it would take hours to go through all the evidence in this case. What strikes you as the most compelling evidence on either side?
JA: The first thing you have to look at is the time line of the phone calls. You have these explanations, how did she know it was a shooting and how did she know it was her husband? A quick sort of summary of what I think the evidence is against her:
The first thing you have to look at is the timeline of the phone calls. You have the shooting at 9:08, the day care center called at 9:25, there’s no mention of a shooting, it’s just that there’s been an accident. Eleven minutes later, there’s a call where she talks to her father-in-law and says Rusty’s been shot. Then at 10:41, she calls my client Shayna and says, Rusty’s been shot. Then by her own admission, she doesn’t find out he’s been shot until after she gets to the hospital at 11 a.m. So you have these explanations. How did she know there was a shooting and how did she know it was her husband who had been shot without having been informed that by anyone?
AJT: I do know, because I’ve asked that question to some of her friends, and they say that there are other people who will say she didn’t say “shot” and that she thinks they misunderstood her.
JA: Well she can get up on the stand and say she didn’t say “shot,” and that’s great but, there are not one, but two people who say that she said “Rusty’s been shot.” Those two people, not only heard her, but immediately after she said that, within seconds they told other people, “Oh my god Rusty’s been shot.” It’s disingenuous for her to get up on the stand and to say I didn’t tell them that. I mean, immediately after telling Shayna, “Rusty’s been shot,” Shayna called her husband and said “Oh my god, Rusty’s been shot.”
She told people at the spa she was at, she immediately broke down in tears and the people at the spa said they asked “what’s wrong, what’s wrong?” And she said, “My best friend’s husband has been shot!” So, you know Shayna said that to them. Don Sneiderman did the same thing. He immediately told his wife and several friends and rushed to go arrange transportation to Atlanta.
You know she could be up on the stand and say she didn’t use the word shot, but sorry. She told Shayna, she told Don and a third person she told in an email, who was a coworker. In the email, she said “Rusty’s been shot.” All before 11 a.m., which is when she gets to the hospital.
AJT: So on that alone, why wouldn’t James go forward with some type of murder case?
JA: Oh, now you’re in my camp! Here’s the really interesting thing, because they played “gotcha’” with Andrea in the first trial. Andrea didn’t know she was being boxed into this, but she testified on the stand herself that in the conversation between her and the daycare worker, the worker said there’s been an accident here and you need to come right away. The daycare worker also testified to that exact conversation, so there’s no dispute of the fact that the day care worker, at 9:25 a.m., made no mention of Rusty being shot.