Banker accused of raping Irish student goes on trial

Jason Lee has chosen to have case heard by judge, rather than a jury of his peers

A former Goldman Sachs Group Inc managing director accused of raping an Irish student at his beach house on New York's Long Island is hoping a judge will be more sympathetic than a jury.

Declining a jury of one’s peers is an uncommon strategy, often reserved for defendants who feel unbiased jurors can’t be had.

For Jason Lee, whose trial begins on Wednesday not far from the Hamptons enclave where he rented his home, the choice may be a smart one, defence lawyers said.

"Although the county depends to a significant extent on the summer tourism business, which is why this defendant was there – why he rented a house for apparently $33,000 a month – it's a love-hate relationship," said James Cohen, a professor at Fordham Law School and former criminal defence attorney.


“The chances of having a voice on the jury who says, ‘Wait a minute, this is the type of guy who contributes to our economy in a good way and therefore we should treat him extremely fairly’ are pretty small.”

Edward Palermo, a defence attorney in Suffolk County, which includes the Hamptons and the east end of Long Island, agreed. Working class suburban jurors who live there year-round may have an additional "internal bias" against wealthy New York City defendants like Lee, one that would put the defence at an immediate disadvantage, he said.

Lee, 38, is accused of raping the 20-year-old waitress after meeting her at a nightclub in Wainscott in August 2013. Charged with first degree rape, he faces as long as 25 years in prison if convicted. His attorneys contend the encounter was consensual.

Having pleaded not guilty, Lee subsequently waived his right to have his case heard by a jury, leaving his fate in the hands of New York State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kahn. One of Lee's attorneys, Edward Burke Jr., has said the case was a "rush" to charge his client, who had never been in trouble before.

Burke said there was not a bump, a bruise or a scratch on Lee following the encounter, despite allegations of a struggle.

Andrew Lankler, another lawyer for Lee, said his client was an "innocent man."

“We’re very anxious to vindicate Mr Lee,” Lankler said Tuesday. He declined to say why he chose a judge over a jury for the trial, set for state court in Riverhead.

Most New York defendants opt for juries. Last year, 348 felony trials in the state were decided by judges, compared with 1,495 by juries, according state records. Only five out of 45 felony trials were decided by judges in Suffolk County.

The county is a difficult jurisdiction for defendants, as jurors are conservative and tend to “fall in line” with the prosecution, said Palermo, who practices law in the town of Hauppauge. “They look at defendants a lot of times and even though they say they’re aware of the presumption of innocence, it’s hard for them to get around the idea of where there’s smoke there’s fire,” he said.

Robert Clifford, a spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, declined to comment on Lee's decision to waive the jury.

Lee and his friends met the woman at a Hamptons hotspot, buying drinks for her and her friends, Spota said after Lee’s arrest. Later they invited the woman and her companions back to Lee’s four-bedroom, three-bathroom rental.

The woman told investigators that a naked Lee followed her into a bathroom and shoved the door with such force that she fell to the floor, according to Spota. Lee allegedly pinned her down while she struggled with him, prosecutors said.

After police were called to the house, they eventually found Lee hiding in a car, Spota said. The woman was taken to a hospital and examined by a nurse trained in sexual assault cases, who determined that injuries, including bruises, were consistent with her allegations, according to Spota.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Lee had been with Goldman Sachs since March 1998, according to Financial Industry Regulatory Authority records.

He was promoted in 2008 to managing director, the firm’s second-highest rank. Lee was head of convertibles at the New York-based bank, according to a person familiar with the matter who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

According to a biography posted on the website of a 2009 Milken Institute conference where Lee was a scheduled speaker, he managed convertible and equity derivative origination for financial institutions, health care, and consumer and retail companies, and led many of the firm’s most complicated financing and risk-management transactions for corporate clients.

Managing directors at the bank typically receive a base salary of $500,000, and often receive bonuses that can boost total compensation into the millions of dollars.

Michael DuVally, a spokesman for Goldman Sachs, declined to comment on the case.

Another factor in choosing a judge over a jury may be the relative paucity of serious crime on the east end of Long Island. From 2009 to 2013, there were 93 violent crimes, including six rapes, reported to East Hampton Town Police for an area covering the eastern portion of Long Island’s South Fork, according to state records.

In 2012, the township had a rate of 71.5 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, compared with a rate of more than 639 per 100,000 in New York City. One of the more notable crimes by out-of-town visitors in the Hamptons occurred in July 2001, when New York publicist Lizzie Grubman drove into a crowd outside a nightclub, injuring 16.

Grubman pleaded guilty the following year to assault and leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to two months in jail and 280 hours of public service. Community resentment over such incidents may have factored into Lee’s estimation that a judge would be a better choice.

Lee's attorneys may also have wanted a judge to decide the case because they feel the alleged victim is a sympathetic figure, said Bennett Gershman, a professor with Pace Law School in White Plains, New York, and a former prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

The woman he met is a native of Ireland who was working in a nearby state. She had come to the Hamptons to visit her brother, who was working there for the summer, prosecutors said.

A jury may be more emotional about the case, while Kahn, the judge, will focus more on the requirements of the law, Cohen said. The lesser included counts Lee faces – third-degree assault and sexual misconduct – carry a maximum sentence of one year.

“It could be that the defence lawyers are hoping for at most a guilty verdict on a lesser count,” Cohen said. “That’s a tricky technical argument to make in front of a jury.”