Monroe County cases see ripples from rulings

Jessica Pierce

Dozens of depraved-indifference murder convictions across New York have been overturned or reduced on appeal as appellate judges have, in the last six years, determined that in most instances, the defendant should have been found guilty of intentional murder instead.

One such case is that of Walter Casper III, who was convicted of depraved-indifference murder in Ontario County Court in July 2000 for killing his wife by sending her over a cliff in Naples in the family minivan. His conviction was reduced on appeal to a lesser charge of manslaughter, and he will spend much less time behind bars.

A handful of convictions in Monroe County have also been overturned or reduced.

Here are two of them:

People vs. Walter Gonzalez

Walter Gonzalez, 26, took another person’s life seven years ago, but the only thing that’s keeping him behind bars now are two felony weapons convictions. Why?

Because the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in March 2004 tossed out his murder conviction, saying the particular charge of depraved indifference didn’t fit the crime. The appeals judges ruled that Gonzalez ought to have been convicted of the equally serious intentional-murder charge.

The particulars of what happened that day, Jan. 25, 2000, when Gonzalez killed Edgardo Lespier in a Rochester babershop were not disputed by the appeals-court ruling.

Evidence at the trial in Monroe County Court showed Gonzalez entered the shop and whispered something to another person. The two of them left. Gonzalez returned to the shop, kicked in the door and shot Lespier in the chest from about 6 feet away. As Lespier fell to the floor, Gonzalez shot him again in the head. He then shot him eight more times. According to the only witness — the barber — Gonzalez waved the gun at him, warned him not to say anything and walked out of the shop.

Gonzalez had told Rochester police he was afraid of Lespier because Lespier had threatened him repeatedly. The victim’s niece had accused Gonzalez of raping her. Gonzalez said when he saw the victim in the barbershop, he became panicked and “blanked out” in fear. He said he didn’t remember the shooting. He said he carried the gun for protection.

According to court papers, a police officer asked Gonzalez: “Well, if you had blacked out, why are you having these nightmares? Could you be having these nightmares because you shot him?”

The officer said that Gonzalez replied, “Of course I shot him.”

Gonzalez was charged with intentional and depraved-indifference murder along with criminal possession of a weapon. While on its face, it “looked like a pretty intentional shooting,” said Monroe County District Attorney Mike Green, jurors were offered the option of depraved indifference because of Gonzalez’ claims that he had blacked out.

His defense attorney moved for a trial order of dismissal, asserting that the evidence was legally insufficient to support depraved indifference as opposed to intentional murder. A Supreme Court judge, however, dismissed the motion and submitted both murder counts to the jury.

The jury acquitted the defendant of intentional murder and convicted him of depraved-indifference murder along with the two weapons charges.

Were it not for the weapons charges, Gonzalez would go free because the prosecution and judge, according to the court, submitted one count too many to the jury. According to the state Department of Corrections, the earliest release date for Gonzalez to get out of prison is now Dec. 12, 2012.

People vs. Edward Rodriguez

Edward Rolon Rodriguez was convicted of second-degree murder in Monroe County Court in 2004 and was sentenced to prison for 25 years to life. But now he’s a free man.

His conviction was reversed by the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court in late September. The judges cited a previous appeals-court ruling in another Rochester homicide case — that of  Walter Gonzalez, in which judges ruled that jurors should have been able to consider only a charge of intentional murder and not reckless murder.

Rodriguez had admitted at his trial that he killed Madeline Rivera, 42, in September 2002 by stabbing her, but he said he did it in self-defense. He claimed that Rivera and four other people ransacked his Clifford Avenue apartment at gunpoint in a robbery. After stabbing her eight times, he took her body to a set of railroad tracks in the city and set it on fire, Monroe County District Attorney Green said.

Green said both charges were offered to jurors in that case because “if you discount his statement, it looks like an intentional crime,” but “if you believe any of the statement — that he didn’t mean to kill anybody,” it would have applied to the depraved-indifference charge.

Rodriguez was acquitted of intentional murder but convicted of depraved-indifference murder. 

The appellate judges who overturned that conviction last fall said “there is no valid line of reasoning” that could have caused the jury in the case “to conclude that (Rodriguez’s) conduct was reckless rather than intentional, particularly in view of the number and severity of the wounds inflicted on the victim.” In October, Monroe County Court Judge Richard A. Keenan turned down a request by the DA’s office to hold Rodriguez in custody while prosecutors ask New York’s highest court to reconsider the ruling. Keenan, who presided over the case in 2004, said the appellate court’s ruling and state law gave him no authority to keep Rodriguez behind bars.

The DA’s office has filed a request to present a case alleging a lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter to a grand jury.

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