ITHACA, N.Y.—A suspended Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office deputy was found guilty of perjury after a two-day trial this week.
Zachary Starner was arrested in February 2021 on first-degree perjury charges after it was alleged he lied on the stand during the 2019 trial of Scott Walters. Walters, another Tompkins County Sheriff’s Deputy, was on trial for rape and sexual abuse charges but was eventually acquitted.
Starner had taken the stand to testify in support of Walters, who was alleged to have raped a woman who was too impaired to consent to sex. Walters’ friend, Matthew Pinney, was also charged in connection to the incident, which occurred in February 2013. Pinney reached a plea deal with the special prosecutor in the case, Schuyler County District Attorney Joseph Fazzary, pleading guilty to reckless endangerment and attempted forcible touching in exchange for testifying against Walters. Pinney was sentenced to one year of probation as a result of the plea deal.
According to Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne, at the time of Starner’s arrest in 2021 the actual perjury had occurred when Starner testified that a state police investigator had not asked him about the existence of a video that purportedly showed Pinney and Walters with the victim during the night of the 2013 incident. That testimony contradicted the state investigator’s own testimony—Starner then admitted to the perjury during a subsequent internal disciplinary hearing, and charges were brought after that.
Since Sept. 25, 2019, Starner has been on paid administrative leave as his conduct was being reviewed (as is customary when police officers are under investigation), but now that he has been convicted, Osborne said he will be attempting to “remove Starner from my roster and will do it as fast as I can.”
Starner will be sentenced on May 26, 2023, by Judge Richard M. Wallace. The maximum sentence for third-degree perjury is 364 days incarceration, probation or a conditional discharge.
“Dishonesty from a law enforcement officer has no place in this community,” said District Attorney Matthew Van Houten in a press release. “This verdict represents a significant message that no one is above the law in Tompkins County. I want to commend ADA Veronica Fox for her strong advocacy and steadfast work on this difficult case.”
Daniel Strollo, the general counsel for the statewide Police Benevolent Association labor union, represented Starner during the trial and said he would be filing an appeal of the conviction. He also alleged prosecutorial misconduct and argued the verdict was the result of overambition on the part of Osborne and the District Attorney’s office, and that Starner’s “supposedly false testimony” had not materially changed the trial in which it was given and was, essentially, irrelevant to those proceedings.
“Mr. Starner testified as a defense witness in a high-profile trial that resulted in an embarrassing loss for the prosecution,” said Strollo. “Mr. Starner wasn’t prosecuted because he intentionally lied—he was prosecuted because he didn’t want to play ball in the underlying trial, and the sheriff wanted retribution.”
Osborne, on the other hand, called the verdict “a win” and said “I can sleep at night with the result.” He encouraged those interested and who can “serve the community with honor, pride, and integrity” to apply to fill Starner’s position and two others.
“This is a trial that I have had to wait years for while being forced to continue paying Starner not to be at work with taxpayer money,” Osborne said. “Being the one that filed the charges against Starner, I believed from the start that my actions were right as I witnessed everything with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears.”
Word had spread during the criminal trial this week that several police officers had been attending the trial in support of Starner, which Strollo attributed to the officers’ belief that Starner was being wrongfully punished. When asked, Osborne confirmed the presence of officers showing up to support the defense, even some other Tompkins County officers. He called it “disheartening” and said that the younger members of the force may not realize the impact their actions have when they are off the clock. He also put forward some stern words for his officers, taking a stance rarely seen in a sitting law enforcement leader.
“I saw not only a few of my deputies, but officers from other police agencies as well, show up in support of Zachary Starner,” Osborne told The Ithaca Voice, while emphasizing that he is proud of the office overall and that some of his employees are “wonderful.”
“I can say sitting on the side of the prosecution with my Undersheriff as my only support was lonely, especially as these members walked by us and sat on the side of the defense. It was disheartening and I guess comes with being in the top position, but it’s not something I’ll soon forget,” said Osborne. “I absolutely will not allow a dishonest police officer to work for me and I’m not here to make friends. […] Those who cannot support my decisions while working for me or those who can’t separate friendships from what’s right should reconsider their career choices. I’d prefer to be short staffed.”
The situation has unfolded for over a decade and will continue to do so. A civil lawsuit against Pinney and Walters over the alleged rape has moved gradually but continually through the county court system for the last few years, and it appears the civil case will eventually go to trial. The alleged victim thanked the jury for their verdict on Starner and said it was “one step of accountability towards the injustices of my case.”
“The justice system relies upon the honesty of those who testify, it is a fundamental principle,” said attorney Aubrey Hetznecker, who is representing the person who accused Pinney and Walters. “Perjured testimony, especially by a police officer, is an absolute abuse of power and undermines the system. Today’s verdict demonstrates that even police officers cannot escape justice.”