Feds could seek death Penalty in UWS Murder

| 21 Jul 2015 | 11:43

The three men accused of killing an Upper West Side shopkeeper last month could face the death penalty if convicted of murder charges.

Although capital punishment was declared unconstitutional in New York State more than a decade ago, the three could still be put to death since they will be prosecuted under federal statutes.

During a conference hearing in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on July 15, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Lenow said officials in the Southern District of New York would confer internally as well as with Department of Justice officials in Washington, D.C., on whether to pursue the death penalty for Stephen Adams, 27; his brother Michael Adams, 29; and Zubearu Bettis, 45.

Following a federal grand jury indictment, all three were arrested July 9 and charged with murder for the shooting death of Bubacarr Camara, who was killed in his father’s Amsterdam Avenue store during a robbery attempt on June 18. They have pleaded not guilty.

Camara, 26, a recent arrival from Gambia, was killed during what a police source called a “botched robbery” of BNC General Merchandise, on a mostly residential stretch of Amsterdam Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets.

Stephen Adams, Michael Adams and Bettis were charged under the Hobbs Act, a federal statute directed at racketeering and organized crime activities. The statute has been successfully used by federal prosecutors against armed robbers targeting businesses.

Federal capital prosecutions, though, are extremely rare in New York. Only one person convicted in the state is on federal death row, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. Ronell Wilson, 33, was convicted in 2006 of capital murder for killing two undercover police officers on Staten Island in 2003. He was sentenced to death in 2007 and, following a reversal by an appeals court, was resentenced to death in 2013.

His was the first federal death sentence handed down in the state since 1954, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

According to police and the state Department of Corrections, Steven Adams, Michael Adams and Bettis had all served time for prior criminal convictions.

Police said Stephen Adams has seven prior arrests, including for felony assault. He was being sought on strangulation charges for an early June incident; Michael Adams was on parole through May 2017 following a conviction on attempted robbery charges; and Bettis, also known as Michael Bettis, had served time on grand larceny, weapons charges and other crimes.

At the conference hearing, Lenow, the U.S. attorney, told Judge Lewis Kaplan that the government expected a quick trial if the death penalty was not invoked. He said prosecutors had executed search warrants on the defendants’ cellphone history, the contents of the phones and their homes. He declined to say whether there were witnesses to the shooting.

“It is a relatively straightforward case,” he said.

He said his office would send a recommendation to “main justice” in Washington, D.C., “sometime in August” on whether or not to pursue a capital case.

Kaplan set October 7 for the next hearing in the case.