Jan. 6, 2020 By Allie Griffin
Melinda Katz was officially sworn in as Queens District Attorney Monday night, hours after she announced sweeping personnel and policy changes.
Katz, who became the first woman to take the office, was sworn in at a ceremony in at St. John’s University — her alma mater — in Jamaica. She is the first Queens District Attorney in nearly three decades, with the late Richard Brown having held office since 1991.
Before the ceremony, Katz announced a new executive team, as well as several policy changes including the creation of a wrongful conviction bureau.
The shakeup to the office marks the end of Brown’s tough-on-crime reign and represents a move toward criminal justice reform.
Katz’s nine-member executive team includes just four prosecutors from Brown’s time in office. These veterans include Jennifer Naiburg, John Castellano, Johnette Traill and Daniel Saunders.
“We have created a team with the unique kind of expertise and specialized skills that will usher in a new era here in Queens County,” Katz said. “The new policies and appointments are just the start, as we look forward to innovative ideas that will enhance the safety of all those who live, work and visit Queens.”
To lead the newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit — which will examine cases and make recommendations for exoneration if someone is found to be wrongfully convicted — Katz hired Bryce Benjet from the Innocence Project. He served as Senior Staff Attorney of the nonprofit and represented Rodney Reed in a widely-covered case to block his execution in Texas.
Naiburg will lead the executive team as Chief Assistant. She has worked at the Queens DA’s Office in numerous positions for the past 26 years.
Castellano, who has 23 years with the office, was named Counsel to the District Attorney. He previously served on Brown’s executive team as Deputy Executive Assistant District Attorney.
Traill was appointed Executive Assistant District Attorney of the Appeals and Special Litigation Division by Katz. She has been with the office for 27 years.
Lastly, Saunders, who joined the Queens DA’s Office in 1992, was confirmed as the Executive Assistant District Attorney of the Major Crimes Division. He has overseen the Major Crimes Division for the last three years.
The four other new hires on the executive team include Camille Chin-Kee-Fatt who was appointed Chief of Staff/ Administration, Angela Albertus as Executive Assistant District Attorney of the Criminal Practice and Policy Division, Pishoy Yacoub as the Executive Assistant District Attorney of the Supreme Court Trial Division and Colleen Babb as the Executive Assistant District Attorney for the Community Partnerships Division.
The new team will help the DA’s Office implement policy changes introduced by Katz.
On her first day in office on Jan. 1, Katz introduced new plea deal policies.
Her office ended Brown’s prior policy of only offering plea deals to defendants who choose to waive their right to a grand jury hearing.
She has also scrapped his policy of refusing to engage in plea deal discussions with defendants who’ve been indicted by a grand jury.
Katz was elected as the Queens District Attorney in November after a contentious primary against progressive challenger Tiffany Cabán in June.