09/21/2007 12:00AM

Lightweight case rightly blown away

EmailNEW YORK - In television courtroom dramas, when the prosecution loses a case on a technicality, it is usually portrayed as a miscarriage of justice and an unfortunate price to be paid for protecting the rights of the accused. In real life, sometimes it's the technicalities that protect us from prosecutorial zeal.

In Saratoga, N.Y., county court last Monday, judge Jerry Scarano dismissed all charges against Braulio Baeza and Mario Sclafani, the two former clerks of the scales who had been charged with 291 felony counts for supposedly letting jockeys ride at incorrect weights. It was the correct conclusion to an unfounded case that wrecked two people's lives and careers. The only thing wrong with the decision was that its technical basis spared the state attorney general's office from further censure and embarrassment for a malicious and inept prosecution.

The charges were tossed in response to a defense motion after representatives from the Toledo Scale Co., which manufactures the scale that was in use at Saratoga in 2004, testified that the scale was not accurately calibrated for weights of more than 115 pounds. (They have since been replaced with accurate digital scales.) Since all but one of the preposterous charges that Baeza and Sclafani had allowed jockeys to ride at as much as 15 pounds overweight involved weights higher than 115, Judge Scarano ruled there was no admissible evidence in the case.

A state assistant attorney general, John Piazza, who has refused to comment on the case or Monday's ruling, now has the option of refiling the charges downstate regarding races at Aqueduct and Belmont, but is unlikely to do so. The three days of arguments and testimony in the Saratoga courtroom provided all the glimpses anyone should need to see that this case was rotten to the core.

"I'm still amazed they ever got indicted," Todd Greenburg, one of the defense lawyers, told The New York Times. The prosecution, he said, "misled the grand jury; they misunderstood the rules of racing."

This was a case that the New York Racing Association brought on itself. In 2004, before its current management team was in place, NYRA was operating under a deferred-prosecution agreement in a highly charged atmosphere of multiple state investigations. A former NYRA trustee felt compelled to tell the court-appointed monitor he had heard vague rumors that the clerks were letting some riders ride overweight. You can hear the same rumor at virtually any racetrack in the world, and if there's even a morsel of truth to it, it's something that could be handled and resolved internally with a five-minute meeting and stricter procedures.

Instead, at a time when then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was already buffing his image as a crime-busting reformer who should be the next governor, his office thought it had stumbled onto the crime of the century. There was secret surveillance, highly publicized raids that NYRA at first played dumb about, and grand jury hearings so transparently flimsy that one juror was disqualified for publicly complaining that the case was baseless and clearly politically motivated.

It was a crime with no motive and laughable evidence. No jockeys were ever charged, and portions of the case had to be thrown out when it became clear that neither defendant had received so much as a nickel for their supposed transgressions. Then it became even clearer that the investigators were completely unfamiliar with either the rules of racing or the laws of physics. They didn't know that some equipment is carried at the weigh-out and not the weigh-in, didn't understand that jockeys' silks can pick up mud and kickback in the course of a race, and didn't realize that it was impossible for humans to gain or lose 15 pounds from one day to the next. All of these inconsistencies were repeatedly raised in public by the defendants and in the press, but the attorney general's office refused to drop the charges.

The defendants' attorneys say they are contemplating legal action against the state and NYRA, though NYRA had little choice but to terminate them after they had been indicted. Can you imagine what Spitzer would have said about NYRA's continuing to employ racing officials who had been indicted on 291 felony counts of tampering with a sports contest, falsifying business records, fraud and grand larceny?

Grand juries, as a famous saying from "Law & Order" goes, will indict a ham sandwich if a prosecutor tells them to. Fortunately for Baeza and Sclafani, there are judges and rules of evidence when you get to the next level, even if it ultimately took a poorly calibrated scale to tip the scales of justice in the right direction.