Ironically, given their unrelenting hunger to make the case, it wasn't even the Brooklyn D.A.'s office who secured the indictment against Zahrey. Because the case consisted of little more than the word of Sidney Quick, they had a big problem. You cannot prosecute someone in state court based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice.
You can, however, bring this kind of case in federal court. So after much lobbying reportedly took place at the highest levels, the office of Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes persuaded the U.S. Attorney to take the case.
In all of these conversations, however, the Brooklyn D.A. somehow neglected to tell the U.S. Attorney's office about a two-and-a-half-hour audiotape of Detective Sergeant Boyce and Detective Sergeant Michael McWilliams interviewing Sidney Quick at Sing Sing. On the tape, the two Internal Affairs detectives are heard cajoling, manipulating, pushing, prodding, and leading Quick to tell them what they want to hear about Detective Zahrey. They promise Quick everything short of a weekend in Vegas with hookers, drugs, and cash to gamble.
Though Quick was facing the possibility of 25 years to life as a repeat felony offender, Boyce tells him: "If you give me Zack, I'll drive you home." Then, when discussing the robbery and murder of a drug dealer named J.R., Boyce is alternately threatening and seductive. First: "You giving me a whole lot of smoke here, man, but you ain't showing me no fire. Know what I mean? I think you're holding back. You haven't nailed him to the cross. But if you hold back, you don't get the deal."
Then, after Quick has admitted he bought the gun used in the drug dealer's murder and is reminded that he fits witness descriptions of the killer: "You think nobody ever called in and your name wasn't mentioned? Your name was all over that fucking case. You better cooperate or else."
Then, shifting gears again: "If you did something, fine, you did it. If someone else pulled the trigger when you were there, we can get around it. You understand what I'm saying? If you tell me Zack was there when J.R. was killed, he's fucked, and you are looking at a very sweet deal. But I can't go with bullshit. I can't go back down there and say he's got a lot of little itty-bitty information but he's got nothing we can nail Zack with. The deal is Zack. You understand that?"
At one point, they even offer to relocate him. "We'll give you a bunch of money and drop you someplace. You know what I'm saying? You can start living life again."
Though no one from the U.S. Attorney's office would comment, they must have exploded when they were blindsided by the existence of this tape. At the very least, they must have felt deceived by the Brooklyn D.A. Whatever credibility Quick had as a witness against Zahrey -- and it wasn't much to begin with -- was obliterated by the tape. After a five-week trial, the jury took ten minutes to acquit Zahrey of all charges.
"The government had no evidence," says Karen Rubin, one of the jurors. "Sidney Quick was a joke. He was totally unbelievable. They told him what to say. He was just trying to save himself."
Two and a half years after his exoneration in criminal court, Zahrey was cleared at a departmental trial and reinstated as a detective. But the damage had been done. His career and reputation had been ruined, his family devastated.
"I loved being a cop and I was really good at it," says Zahrey, 37, who never returned to detective work even though he got his shield back. "I risked my life working the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn as an undercover with no vest. I was a son of a bitch out there. I was a buying machine. One hundred and fifty-nine drug buys in eighteen months. And look what they did to me."
Zahrey's civil suit, however, is about more than revenge and restitution. "This is probably the first case where state and federal prosecutors are in serious danger of actually having to stand trial on an allegation that they manufactured false evidence or acted wrongfully in their investigation of a criminal matter," says Joel Rudin, who has been Zahrey's lawyer through the entire seven-year ordeal.
Traditionally, prosecutors have had immunity from lawsuits for wrongful prosecution. As a practical matter, this protection is crucial. It would be almost impossible for the criminal-justice system to function if prosecutors had to worry about getting sued by every defendant they take to court. The Zahrey civil action, however, does not seek damages for the decision to prosecute.
Rudin wants to hold prosecutors accountable for what they did before they got the indictment against Zahrey. He is accusing them of misconduct for actions they took in their role as investigators, long before they ever got to the courtroom.
"This case is so significant," says Rudin, "because if prosecutors know they might be held liable if they act wrongly in shaping the stories and potential testimony of government informants, then they'll have to follow some basic standards."
Right now, cops and prosecutors can take a lifelong predator, a violent criminal with a history of lying and manipulating the system -- a Sidney Quick -- and give him a step-by-step guide to getting himself out of prison. "If they can prosecute a police detective based on the word of someone like Sidney Quick, then no one is safe," Rudin says.
What is unique about the Zahrey case is the documentation: the existence of the Sing Sing tape. The normal procedure, according to Internal Affairs detectives I spoke to, is to spend as much time as needed interviewing a witness -- and to do whatever is necessary to get what you're after -- and then to tape only the finished, final statement. The two-and-a-half-hour tape of Sidney Quick and the detectives badgering and negotiating and doing what cops sometimes do, was made by mistake.
Over the past fifteen years, there has been an extraordinary shift in the balance of power in the criminal-justice system from the judges to the prosecutors. Wielding harsh mandatory sentences that leave little or no room for judicial discretion, prosecutors can put incredible pressure on people to cooperate and to say what they think prosecutors want to hear. And the system has come to rely almost exclusively on this wheeling-and-dealing method of charging and convicting people.
"The system depends on informants to break cases. Cops and prosecutors bring someone in and get them to implicate somebody else," says Rudin. "It's the Sammy Gravano syndrome. He admits to nineteen murders but gets a walk because he helps prosecutors. You need people to testify against the bad guys, but you can't simply give them the whole courthouse. There is a total lack of proportionality and sense of balance."