Judges uphold removal of Whitehall justice who pointed gun at Black defendant
A Whitehall town and village justice has been removed for brandishing a gun at a Black man who appeared in his courtroom and boasting about the incident.
The New York Court of Appeals has upheld a decision by the New York Commission on Judicial Conduct to remove Robert Putorti, who has been a judge for the town and village since 2014.
Putorti brandished a loaded firearm at a litigant who was waiting for his case to be called, according to the decision. He also engaged in improper fundraising.
The incident stemmed from his handling of a case involving a man who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for an incident where he brandished his knife at his wife and another man while they sat in a parked car. He agreed to pay fines and received a one-year conditional discharge, according to the decision. However, the defendant’s wife said he could not afford to pay the fine. Instead, he lobbied for the fine to be reduced to community service, which was granted.
It was at a later court appearance that Putorti brandished the weapon when the defendant approached the bench and went past the line that people are supposed to stand behind.
Putorti told the supervising judge that he pointed his gun and told the defendant that it was not loaded but it only took a split-second to load. He wanted him to step back behind the line. At that point, he put it away.
Putorti admitted that although he mentioned the litigant’s race to describe him, he said he “may have created the appearance of racial bias.”
He also said that he had “no reasonable basis” to believe that the man “was about to use imminent deadly force.”
Putorti recounted that incident to others including once “in an apparently boastful manner.” He spoke to a Hofstra University journalism student for an article that was eventually published in a Long Island news source, according to the decision.
Putorti showed the article to another judge at a conference describing how he drew his firearm on an “agitated” “big Black man.”
He signed a counseling memorandum agreeing never to display the weapon unless facing deadly force.
The second allegation concerns eight Facebook posts that Putorti made promoting fundraising events from October 2019 through November 2020 – after he was aware his conduct was being investigated. He was seeking to raise money for medical expenses after getting into a motorcycle accident and was promoting a spaghetti dinner.
He also made other posts promoting barbecue dinners that the general public could attend that raised nearly $3,500 in total and other events restricted to lodge members that raised $1,000.
The appellate justices decided to uphold the punishment because they said judges must be held to a higher standard “so the integrity of the judiciary will be preserved.”
“While presiding over his courtroom, petitioner brandished a loaded firearm at a litigant who presented no threat to anyone,” the justices went on to say. “Rather than show remorse, he described his conduct in a press interview and boasted about it to his colleagues, while repeatedly, and gratuitously, referring to the litigant’s race.”