David Jakubonis seems an unlikely figure to ignite a raging political debate.

A veteran beset with alcohol and mental health problems, the bespectacled Jakubonis struggles with family relations, employment, and the aftermath of his year of service in the Iraqi War. What prompted him to walk onto a stage on July 21 in Perinton, NY, wielding a pointed device typically used for self-defense, and approach Congressman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin may never be known.

It appears certain that Jakubonis, 43, was intoxicated and mentally addled by alcohol. He now faces a federal charge accusing him of assaulting a Congressional representative with a deadly weapon. Secondly, he is facing a state charge of second-degree attempted assault, considered a non-violent felony in New York.

And therein lies the rub.

The state charge is ineligible for bail, so Jakubonis was released the evening of the alleged assault. The state’s bail changes, which many in law enforcement and GOP circles say is a key cause of increasing crime, were already a boiling political issue, though available data has not made a link between the growing crime rate and the legal changes.

On July 21, Jakubonis became Exhibit A in the controversy, portrayed as a man who could have killed a gubernatorial candidate and then was free within hours.

In a campaign ad created after the confrontation, a narrator declared, “A man aggressively attacks Lee Zeldin with a weapon. Only hours later, the attacker was released under New York’s dangerous cashless bail program, the very program Lee Zeldin has promised to overhaul as governor.”

An ethical thicket

Zeldin has wielded the bail changes in numerous political salvoes against incumbent Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul.

“It is imperative that we repeal cashless bail in the state. Judges should have discretion to weigh dangerousness and flight risk and past criminal records, seriousness of the offense on far more offenses,” Zeldin told the media.

But, beyond the fight over bail, the arrest of Jabukonis mushroomed into questions about how the state charge was chosen and also about the ethics of Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley, a Republican and Zeldin supporter who was at the July 21 event at a Perinton VFW hall.

Within days after the alleged attack, national news outlets were questioning whether Doorley may have intervened to ensure a bail-free charge, thus handing her preferred gubernatorial candidate ammunition to attack the laws. Doorley herself has been a critic of the new bail laws.

No evidence exists that Doorley did interject herself into the choice of the criminal charge, and local defense lawyers of both major parties ― some who allege that the DA’s Office does “over-charge” with some offenses ― say the narrative of how the charge was decided aligns with common practice.

“Its going to be a sensitive case because of who was involved,” said Rochester defense lawyer and former prosecutor Brian DeCarolis. The description of how and why Jakubonis was charged with a low-level felony “makes all the sense in the world,” he said.

“I know from when I was on that side,” DeCarolis said.

Doorley has recused herself from the case and the office plans to have a special prosecutor. She and others at the July 21 rally say she did nothing there to dictate what the charge would be.

How Jakubonis’ arrest and charges played out

Monroe County Sheriff’s Investigator Sgt. David Bolton said in an interview that, on the evening of July 21, he received a call from Investigator Jeffrey Branagan, who had responded to the allegations of the attack on Zeldin and arrested Jakubonis.

“The charge comes down to my input, along with Investigator Branagan’s input,” he said. What was central to the decision was a lack of injury to Zeldin; an injury would have allowed for a more severe charge.

Branagan also called Monroe County First Assistant District Attorney Perry Duckles, and the DA’s Office agreed that second-degree attempted assault was the proper charge, according to Bolton.

The issue of whether the criminal count was eligible for bail was not a consideration, Bolton said. “The lack of bail has no effect on the charge,” he said.

Second-degree attempted assault is a charge not often seen as a “top count,” the most serious charge brought against a defendant. However, defendants do often take pleas to the charge.

“We see it a lot,” said Rochester-area defense lawyer Joseph Damelio of the second-degree attempted assault.

Former Monroe County First Assistant District Attorney Kelly Wolford, who is now in private practice, said of the Sheriff’s Office version of events, “This is like textbook how it should play out.

“The cops make the charging decision 99 percent of the time. If there’s a question, they talk to somebody in the DA’s Office, whether it’s the on-call DA or somebody higher up in the food chain.”

As the highest-ranking prosecutor after Doorley in the office, Duckles would be the natural person for investigators to contact about Jakubonis’ arrest, she said.

Not long after the confrontation in Perinton, two Rochester police officers ― Anthony  Mazurkiewicz and Sino Seng ― were shot in the city. Mazurkiewicz later died. Both Doorley and Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter, also a critic of the bail laws, were from then on focused on the officers and the investigation that led to the arrest of Kelvin Vickers, accused of the shooting.

Political undercurrent

The political undercurrent of the arrest of Jakubonis and its aftermath is so volatile that a number of Rochester-area lawyers declined to speak on the record, while all agreed that the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office narrative of the July 21 event is likely accurate. Asked for comment or insights, one lawyer answered in a text, “Nope, this one’s too nuclear.”

Some questioned whether the charge was even too severe, given that Jakubonis did not rush Zeldin and his motives appear uncertain. His attorney on the federal charge, Assistant Federal Public Defender Steven Slawinski, said Thursday that Jakubonis was trying to take the microphone from Zeldin. Jakubonis wrongly thought that Zeldin was denigrating veterans, Slawinski said.

Jakubonis was wielding the self-defense device, which can be purchased over the counter. “His hand was coming up towards my throat area,” Zeldin said Thursday in a video commentary about bail laws. The device, which can be attached to a keychain, is shaped like a cat with two sharpened points as the ears.

Zeldin held off Jakubonis, and others tackled and subdued him.

“It was bizarre because, while seeing this weapon that was coming up to my throat area, I was also seeing that he was wearing a hat that was saying he was a veteran,” Zeldin said.

Zeldin said he has learned of Jakubonis’ Army service, and said that detention after the arrest might have allowed him to sober up and receive services instead of being freed. Jakubonis wore a baseball cap declaring “Operation Iraqi Freedom” when arrested.

Local judges have said that they have seen precipitous declines in the number of people entering treatment courts, which can route defendants into substance abuse treatment programs, since the advent of the bail changes. Some of that decline is also likely tied to the pandemic.

Supporters of the changes note that bail is supposed to ensure a defendant returns to court, and is not a punitive process for those presumed innocent. The motivation behind the changes was the fact that some poor people, unable to afford small bails, found themselves jailed for weeks and their lives upended. Critics of the new laws say the changes went too far, making some serious criminal charges ineligible for bail.

Jakubonis is now jailed on the federal charge. A magistrate judge is deciding whether he can be released.

Monroe County Democratic Committee Chairman Zachary King said there were reasons Doorley was suspected of manipulating the charge ― namely her presence at the event, her known support for Zeldin and the fact that she spoke there with the gubernatorial candidate.

“I think the whole situation raises a lot of questions,” said King. “Do I think it’s something that should be scrutinized? Absolutely.”

Questions about Doorley’s attendance at rally

For Monroe County District Attorney Doorley, the controversy over the bail-ineligible charge may disappear, but the lingering issue for her could arise from her presence at political events.

The Albany Times-Union reported Thursday that Doorley also spoke at a Monroe County Republican Committee event on May 25 featuring Zeldin. The ethics guidelines for district attorneys in New York say they “generally may not speak at political functions.” If anyone were to pursue ethics complaints, they would likely be routed to the state’s attorney grievance committee.

Calli Marianetti, Doorley’s spokeswoman, said the district attorney attended the May 25 event because it was an annual Republican gathering and not a campaign rally solely for Zeldin. Doorley did not intend to speak, but did so after a previous speaker asked her to come to the stage for comments, Marianetti said. She did not endorse any candidate, Mariannetti said, and Doorley spoke for about a minute on criminal justice reform.

Monroe County Democratic Party Chairman King said that Zeldin was publicly portrayed as the keynote speaker, which, King said, gives a clear public appearance of a rallies/" 1014 target="_blank">political rally for the candidate. “When you speak at those events where one person is the highlighted speaker, it’s kind of implicit,” King said of Doorley’s comments at the GOP gathering.

As well, Zeldin’s campaign website, until after the July 21 Perinton rally, showed Doorley as a campaign co-chairwoman, which would also run afoul of ethics for district attorneys.

A statement from the DA’s Office was issued in response, stating: “In the Spring of 2022, Congressman Zeldin asked District Attorney Doorley if she would be willing to serve on his campaign. Since they had a pre-existing friendship, she agreed.

“However, after discussing with the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York representatives, District Attorney Doorley stepped away from the role and informed Congressman Zeldin of this decision on April 28, 2022.”

Zeldin’s campaign has said that Doorley’s name was wrongly left on the website.

The next election for district attorney is 2023. Doorley has not said whether she will seek re-election.

A former Democrat who changed parties, Doorley would be seeking her fourth term.

In 2019 a progressive political action committee funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros channeled hundreds of thousands into anti-Doorley campaign ads. Doorley still won handily, as Democrats in other races showed strength in countywide contests.

Contact Gary Craig at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @gcraig1

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