Moments after he was allowed to dismiss his attorney in an effort to withdraw from a plea agreement, community activist and alleged gun trafficker Ismail Shabazz blasted his new attorney in court on Tuesday, Jan. 17 as a “bad lawyer” and a “snake.”
Shabazz, a onetime leader of the local NAACP and supporter of radical activist group the New Black Panther Party, was indicted in June 2015. Authorities allege that on five occasions in 2014 and 2015, the 61-year-old grandfather illegally sold guns to an FBI informant posing as a fellow activist. The gun sales, authorities say, were caught in surveillance tapes which also showed Shabazz discussing tactics for disarming police officers and recruiting gang members into the New Black Panther Party.
Shabazz claims that he was lured into the sales by a man who he described as “like a son to me” and who, Shabazz said, showed him a federal firearms dealer’s license. Shabazz said he believed he was helping his community by taking illegal guns off the streets to be sold legally elsewhere.
Shabazz’s attorney, noted civil rights lawyer Michael Sussman, said he planned to put on an entrapment defense, arguing that a police agent had enticed his client into criminal activity that he would not otherwise have engaged in. But back on Oct. 28, 2016, Shabazz appeared in Ulster County Court to enter a plea of guilty to a single count of attempted criminal sale of a firearm. Presiding Judge Richard McNally agreed to a plea deal that would have sent Shabazz to state prison for two years. If convicted on all charges in the indictment, Shabazz could have faced up to 35 years in prison. Sussman said his client had agreed to the plea deal based on the amount of prison time he faced and challenges to mounting an effective defense.
Shabazz was set to be sentenced on Jan. 10. Instead, he told McNally that he wanted to dismiss Sussman and find a new attorney to help him withdraw his guilty plea. McNally gave Shabazz one week to find an attorney or apply for representation from the public defender’s office.
On Tuesday, Shabazz returned to court without an attorney. But when McNally assigned public defender MariAnne Connolly, Shabazz raised objections. Shabazz — who is a paralegal and has in the past filed complaints against police on behalf of community members — claimed that he had named Connolly in ethics complaints, thereby creating a conflict of interest. Connolly said that she had no knowledge of any complaints against her by Shabazz and said she was unaware of any conflict of interest. Sussman associate Heather Abissi, who represented Shabazz until McNally approved the dismissal, said she was not aware of any conflict with the Public Defender’s Office and could not verify her clients claim regarding ethics complaints.
Later, outside the courtroom, Shabazz said Connolly could not fairly represent him in his attempt to withdraw the guilty plea. “She’s a bad attorney,” said Shabazz outside court following the hearing. “I would rather represent myself than have her do it.”
McNally, meanwhile, scheduled a hearing for Feb. 10 to determine whether Shabazz would be allowed to withdraw the guilty plea. McNally added that unless Shabazz could demonstrate a conflict of interest or he retained his own counsel, Connolly would continue to represent him.
“You just can’t get a lawyer for the asking,” said McNally. “Not any lawyer you want.”