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APPELLATE RULING OPENS POSSIBILITY OF PAROLE

A state appeals court upheld a murder conviction against a man found guilty in the 1997 execution-style slaying of a 62-year-old woman, but dismissed three other charges.

The State Supreme Court Appellate Division in Rochester ruled Friday that John Lee Couser's conviction on charges of witness-elimination murder, intentional murder and attempted murder be thrown out for lack of evidence. The court left intact Couser's second-degree murder conviction.

Couser, now 40, was sentenced in March 2001 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The appeals court ruling means Couser could be eligible for parole after serving 25 years.

Prosecutors said Couser, while awaiting trial in the Monroe County Jail, dispatched a death squad to Syracuse on Feb. 23, 1997, to kill witness James Hackett to prevent him from testifying against Couser in a kidnapping and attempted murder case.

When the hit squad could not find Hackett at his mother's home, they herded 62-year-old Virginia Hackett and her teenage grandsons into the basement and shot each in the head. The grandsons survived.

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