A former Haitian paramilitary leader once widely feared in his own country was accused at trial Monday of becoming a common white-collar criminal once he fled to the United States.
Emmanuel "Toto" Constant helped hatch a mortgage fraud scheme that cheated lenders out of $1.7 million, prosecutors alleged at the trial in Brooklyn. He faces five to 15 years in prison if convicted of second-degree grand larceny.
The case will show that Constant, 51, was "a crook as well as human rights violator," said Jennie Green, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil rights group monitoring the trial.
In opening statements, defense attorney Samuel Karlinger told jurors his client was framed by others who took plea deals and whose "motivation is to keep themselves out of jail."
Constant, the 6-foot-4 son of a military officer, emerged as the notorious leader of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was toppled in 1991.
Human rights groups allege that between 1991 and 1994, FRAPH terrorized and slaughtered slum-dwellers loyal to Aristide. When Aristide returned to power in 1994, Constant slipped into the United States.
Despite a 1995 deportation order, Constant was allowed to remain because of instability in Haiti. He kept a low profile, living with relatives in Queens until being jailed in 2006 in the mortgage fraud case.
The jury, which was not told about Constant's history in Haiti, heard testimony Monday from a cooperator, Walter St. Surin, who described how the defendant approached him one day and said, "I have great news for you."
St. Surin claimed Constant offered to broker deals using so-called straw buyers — people paid to apply for loans that were never repaid — to buy "distressed" properties at inflated prices. In their first deal, Surin bought a home for $160,000 and sold it a month later to a straw buyer for $285,000, he testified.
Constant originally struck a plea deal last year for a reduced sentence. At the time, prosecutors and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had urged state Supreme Court Justice Abraham Gerges to sentence him to time served, about 10 months, to speed his deportation to Haiti.
Instead, the judge ordered Constant to go to trial, saying the murder and torture allegations facing him in his homeland "are heinous, and the court cannot in good conscience consent to the previously negotiated sentence."