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New York judge upholds indictment against alleged Letterman blackmailer [Updated]

January 19, 2010 |  9:22 am

A New York state supreme court judge ruled today that there was enough evidence to indict a longtime CBS News producer for trying to extort late-night host David Letterman, rejecting the defense’s effort to dismiss the charge.

Attorneys for Robert Joel Halderman, who is accused of demanding $2 million in exchange for a screenplay treatment he had written about affairs Letterman had with female staffers, had sought to get the court to drop the charge of attempted grand larceny in the first degree. Defense attorney Gerald Shargel argued that Halderman's actions did not meet the state's definition of extortion because he had a right to sell his story idea.

But Judge Charles H. Solomon said prosecutors had met their burden of proof, writing that “the evidence presented to the grand jury was sufficient,” and rejected the defense’s claim that Halderman’s constitutional right to free speech was violated.

He also was not swayed by Shargel’s argument that the prosecution needed to instruct grand jurors that Halderman could argue a “claim of right” defense that he had a right to the money he demanded. “By law, that defense is not available to one charged with committing larceny by extortion,” Solomon wrote.

As for Shargel’s claim that Halderman’s alleged shakedown of Letterman was merely a “commercial transaction,” the judge ruled that that was an issue best left for a jury to decide.

Shargel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Halderman, a veteran producer for the CBS news magazine “48 Hours Mystery” was arrested Oct. 1 after attempting to deposit a fake check for $2 million given to him by Letterman's attorney. The alleged blackmail attempt exploded into public view after Letterman revealed the episode on the air, saying an extortionist demanded money to keep quiet about the talk show host's sexual liaisons with employees.

[Updated at 10:43 a.m.: In an interview, Shargel said he was not discouraged by the ruling, adding that his motion to dismiss raised “novel legal issues.”

“I believed in the legal arguments when I filed the motion and I believe in them now, but right now we’re at the trial level and preparing to go forward,” he said.

Shargel said he was heartened that the judge said the defense’s argument that Halderman was pursuing a commercial transaction was one that should be decided by a jury. “I don’t think there’s a hole in our defense at all,” said the attorney, who disputed reports that there is a plea deal on the table. “I think we will be very able to raise a meaningful defense and a vigorous defense.”

Daniel J. Horwitz, an attorney for Letterman, said in a statement that the judge’s decision “strongly indicates that the focus of this case will be the facts of what Mr. Halderman did and what he said -- facts that amount to classic extortion and facts that the judge credited in denying Mr. Halderman’s legal arguments.” A trial date is expected to be set in March.]

-- Matea Gold

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