Russian-speaking residents and others in Brighton Beach may have looked up in the sky early last week to see an airplane trailing a banner that read, “My son – V. Vassilenko – Jailed 67 Mo – No Trial – Is He Al Capone?”
The banner was to protest New York City inmate Vadim Vassilenko, 44, being kept in jail for so long without a trial.
His mother, who lives in Ukraine, raised the $1250 Arnold Aerial Advertising charges to fly a plane with a 100-foot custom banner. This was the second banner dedicated to Vassilenko’s cause flown over the city in the past month.
Vassilenko has traveled great lengths to have his grievances heard by the American public. He blogs about his case from jail, and even spilled his own blood to write about his constitutional right to a speedy trial on the walls of his cell.
By publicizing via the Internet and airplane banners his objections to America’s legal system for having to remain in jail for so long without trial, Vassilenko has been successful in creating a media buzz surrounding his case. But he doesn’t seem to understand that his constitutional rights have actually not been violated.
“While it’s quite unusual for a defendant to wait four years or more for their case to go to trial, as of now I cannot articulate an unjust reason for the delay,” said his lawyer Rick Pasacreta in an e-mail.
Vassilenko’s assets have been frozen, so taxpayers are paying for Pasacreta’s services. He’s at least the fourth lawyer to represent Vassilenko, and has only been working on his case for a month.
Vassilenko, a native of Ukraine, who in 1992 was granted permanent resident status based on his being a businessman, has been incarcerated since 2006 for a number of financial crimes. He accepted a plea bargain in August 2007, agreeing to be deported back to his homeland. But then he was indicted again on a number of other serious counts.
Vassilenko’s new indictment alleged that he with his wife and a third person participated in money laundering. He ran Western Express International, which permitted people to traffic the earnings from personal data and stolen credit card numbers in secret. Prosecutors claim that together, Vassilenko and his accomplices laundered more than $35 million received illicitly.
Owing to a lack of evidence, Justice Bruce Allen of State Supreme Court in Manhattan dismissed Vassilenko’s case in 2008.
But Allen’s dismissal didn’t satisfy the district attorney’s office, so it reinstated the charge by filing an appeal, which according to Pasacreta, is quite rare.
Pasacreta said Vassilenko should strongly consider entering a plea of guilty, because it’s likely the judge would offer him a sentence of four to 12 years in exchange. This would leave him with a prospect of returning home to his mother, wife and 7-year-old son in Ukraine later this year, since he’s already served over four years in jail.
But Vassilenko thinks the legal system has it in for him. He’s dwelling so much on his right to a speedy trial that he has failed to consider Pasacreta’s advice or even the fact that he has not yet qualified for a speedy trial.
According to Columbia University law professor and expert in criminal law James Liebman, Vassilenko “hasn’t taken the steps the system requires to trigger that right.”
To get the speedy trial he wants, Vassilenko would have to plead innocent, Pasacreta said. However, Vassilenko hasn’t done this, hoping for his case to be dismissed.
Vassilenko just wants his day in court.
“I tried to be reasonable with the Government,” he said in a mass letter to journalists. “I have written to the judge enough to publish a book explaining my position, but I was treated without respect by the system.”
His new strategy has been to turn to the press. His story has been covered by The New York Post, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He’s also been blogging from jail.
“Attention, journalists, American and foreign! My name is Vadim Vassilenko,” he wrote in a live journal entry. “Please, cover my horrible story in the mainstream media.”
But despite media coverage, he failed to secure a trial date at his hearing Tuesday.
Pasacreta doesn’t have the same feelings about the press as his client.
“I think human nature, including myself, is to be less cooperative with someone using the press,” he said.
Vassilenko was indicted not by himself but with a number of codefendants. When Pasacreta was asked if the other defendents were ever tried, he responded, “Vadim’s codefendants (at least the ones who have not pleaded guilty yet) have waited just as long as he has for a trial. You may not be aware of them because they have not flown any planes around lower Manhattan.”
“We have a very fair-minded judge,” he said. “He doesn’t care one way or another what goes on in the press.”
(Written Sept. 14, 2011 for Reporting and Writing class)