A judge who was sharply criticized for the way he handled the case of a Columbia University student charged with sexual torture said yesterday that he would not be available to handle a retrial of the case.
The decision by the judge, William A. Wetzel, came less than a month before the rematch of People v. Oliver Jovanovic. Justice Wetzel, of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, had insisted earlier that he would preside over the retrial, even though he had been criticized by an appeals court and assailed by the defense as being biased.
But yesterday, Justice Wetzel abruptly announced that his fall calendar would be too full to hear the case, which had been scheduled to begin on Sept. 4. And much to the amazement of Mr. Jovanovic, his relatives and lawyers, the judge then directed them to a different court building and a new judge.
There, they learned that because of scheduling conflicts, the trial before the new judge, Rena K. Uviller, might now be postponed two months.
In 1999, Mr. Jovanovic's conviction in the kidnapping, torture and sexual abuse of a Barnard student was thrown out by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court. Since then, Mr. Jovanovic has changed lawyers and the Manhattan district attorney has changed prosecutors.
The case had its beginnings in 1996, when Mr. Jovanovic, a graduate student in microbiology, and the Barnard student, 20, began exchanging e-mails about a shared taste for sadomasochistic sex. When they met for a dinner date, it lasted 20 hours and ended with horrifying accusations of imprisonment, sodomy and torture, though there was little medical evidence to support them.
The Manhattan district attorney's office likened Mr. Jovanovic to the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. And Justice Wetzel, often thundering from the bench at Mr. Jovanovic's first defense lawyer, Jack T. Litman, ruled that the lurid e-mail correspondence be kept from the jury, since a rape shield law precluded references to her sexual past.
Mr. Jovanovic, now 34, was convicted and sentenced in 1998 to 15 years in jail. But in 1999, the appeals court, in a scathing opinion that laid blame squarely on Justice Wetzel's decision on use of the rape shield law, overturned the conviction. As the court wrote, "The erroneous ruling in effect gutted Jovanovic's right to testify fully in his own defense."
With Mr. Jovanovic released from prison and awaiting retrial, defense lawyers began work on what they considered critical to the case: getting a new judge. They petitioned court administrators, then went to an appeals court, trying to get Justice Wetzel removed from the case.
These efforts failed. And in May, gearing up for the retrial, a hearing before Justice Wetzel seemed to produce the same dynamics as at the first trial. In a yelling match with the new defense lawyer, Paul F. Callan, Justice Wetzel threatened to arrest him for contempt.
In the new courtroom, though, Justice Uviller appeared to settle in for business as usual. "It's a retrial," she said to both parties, "so there are really no hidden issues here."
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