UPDATE: This story has been updated with the following comment from the lawyers of the alleged victim in the Scott Walters rape trial, in which Walters was acquitted. There is now a civil lawsuit connected to the case.

“While we are still gathering information on this charge, it raises serious questions about the legitimacy of the defense presented during the criminal trial,” said Aubrey Hetznecker of Schlather, Stumbar, Parks & Salk. “This perjury charge also highlights the vulnerabilities survivors of sexual assault face in the criminal justice system. Our client is eager to pursue her civil suit and hold the perpetrators accountable.”

ORIGINAL STORY:

TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—A Tompkins County Sheriff’s Deputy has been arrested on charges of perjury, the sheriff’s office announced Monday.

Deputy Zachary Starner was charged with first degree perjury, listed as a Class D felony charge, according to Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne, who conducted the arrest. According to the press release from Osborne, Starner’s charges come from testimony he gave in the 2019 trial of Scott Walters, a fellow Tompkins County Sheriff’s Deputy who was on trial for charges of raping a woman in February 2013. Walters was eventually acquitted, though another man accused that night, Matthew Pinney, pled guilty to forcible touching and reckless endangerment.

During the trial, Starner was called as a defense witness and identified himself as a Tompkins County police office and friend of Walters, the accused. He testified, though, without telling Osborne beforehand. According to the press release, he then made sworn statements about “his conversation with a New York State Police Investigator assigned to the case.”

Osborne clarified in a follow-up comment to The Ithaca Voice that Starner had lied on the stand and then admitted to the lie during a punishment hearing in January, which was set to be the culmination of his misconduct investigation. Osborne had placed Starner on leave shortly after the trial ended “for the purposes of investigating his potential misconduct during the investigation of the alleged rape,” which earned Starner a first Notice of Discipline.

“During the investigation (of the rape accusations against Walters), it became known that a video had existed at one time which showed the victim with the two defendants during the time in question,” Osborne said in response to a request for clarity. “The NYS Police Investigator contacted Starner during the investigation and asked him about the video and testified to such. During trial, he claimed that she never asked him about the video. Then, during his arbitration hearing, he admitted that she had questioned him about it.”
Osborne issued Starner a second Notice of Discipline upon his admission in his arbitration hearing, stating that the county would be seeking his termination, and Starner was subsequently arrested on perjury charges. He had already been on paid administrative leave since Sept. 25, 2019, as his conduct was being investigated, in accordance with the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Association’s collective bargaining agreement.

Starner is scheduled to appear in the City of Ithaca Court on March 3, 2021 at 9 a.m.

There is an ongoing civil lawsuit connected to the Walters trial, filed by the alleged victim against both Walters and Pinney. Lawyers for the victim in that case declined to comment yet, citing the need to gather more information on the charges against Starner.

In a prepared statement, Osborne said, “This behavior is both morally and legally reprehensible, and does not reflect the values I require of my office. It also runs counter to the beliefs and great work exhibited by the other wonderful men and women who work here. I also apologize on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office to all those involved in the case.”

Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino stated, “We recognize and share the public’s concerns that oftentimes officers are placed on paid leave pending investigations and that justice is served slowly in these cases. I applaud Sheriff Osborne for making the decision to pursue charges beyond the notice of discipline. Part of our ongoing reimagining public safety work directly addresses officer accountability, and we will continue to advocate for and institute policies that allow for more swift and direct discipline of officers.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com