New York town justice who pulled gun on defendant removed from bench

WHITEHALL, N.Y. — A town justice in upstate New York who bragged to fellow judges about wielding his loaded, semi-automatic weapon at a defendant he described as a “large Black man” has been removed from the bench.

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Robert J. Putorti Jr., 52, a non-attorney who has served in Whitehall town and village courts since Jan. 1, 2014, was kicked off the bench after a 10-1 decision Thursday by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Putorti’s attorney, Michael D. Root, had asked the commission to consider lesser punishments such as censure and a public admonishment, the Albany Times-Union reported.

The commission, a watchdog panel for the state’s judiciary, said it was troubled by Putorti’s “repeated description of the defendant’s race,” according to the newspaper.

In its recommendation, the commission stated that in late 2015 or early 2016, Putorti “brandished” a semi-automatic handgun at Brandon Wood, a defendant the justice described as a “big Black man” and a “large Black man” who stood 6 feet, 9 inches tall. The commission added that Putorti described Wood as being “built like a football player.”

Wood was actually 6 feet tall and weighed approximately 165 pounds, the commission said.

Wood was initially charged with attempted first-degree assault for an alleged attack on his wife and another man, the Times-Union reported. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of menacing and weapon possession.

According to the commission, Putorti claimed that Wood approached the bench “too quickly,” which prompted the justice to show his weapon in court, WRGB-TV reported.

“Although (Putorti) states that he subjectively feared for his safety when he brandished his gun at Mr. Wood, he now acknowledges that he had no reasonable basis to believe that Mr. Wood was about to use imminent deadly force against him or anyone else,” the commission stated in its decision. “In retrospect, (Putorti) admits that he was not justified in brandishing his gun at Mr. Wood.”

Putorti, permitted to carry a concealed weapon since at least 2003, said he was told at a judge training course in 2013 that he could legally carry a gun while presiding in court, the Times-Union reported. The judge would attach the weapon with a magnet to the underside of the desktop at his bench, according to the newspaper.

“The courthouse is where threats or acts of gun violence are meant to be resolved, not generated,” the commission’s administrator, Robert Tembeckjian, said in a statement. “But for the fact that it happened in this case, it would otherwise be unfathomable for a judge to brandish a weapon in court, without provocation or justification.  To then brag about it repeatedly with irrelevant racial remarks is utterly indefensible and inimical to the role of a judge.”

The commission’s lone dissenter, Ronald J. Rosenberg, said that “simply because some people may interpret such accurate and benign descriptions as giving the appearance of racial bias, is no basis to remove (Putorti) from the bench.”

Putorti has 30 days to either accept the decision or ask the Court of Appeals to review it.

Root noted that in 2001, Rockland County-based village justice Thomas A. Ciganek received an admonition for firing his gun at a crowded street, the Times-Union reported. In that case, Ciganek was attempting to scare a wild turkey off the road.

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