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New DA's conflict of interest to delay murder trial two months

A two-month postponement of the Richard W. Matt murder trial loomed Thursday, as a special prosecutor is being sought from Erie County because of a conflict of interest for the incoming Niagara County district attorney.

Matt, 41, formerly of the City of Tonawanda, is charged with the December 1997 beating death and dismemberment of William Rickerson, 76, a North Tonawanda food broker who had fired Matt from a job a few weeks before. Rickerson's body was cut into pieces and thrown into the Niagara River, from which parts of the corpse were recovered in the ensuing weeks.

A co-defendant, Lee E. Bates, pleaded guilty to murder and is serving a sentence of 15 years to life. He is to testify at the trial. Matt was returned here in January after completing a sentence in a Mexican prison for killing a man in a bar fight. He left for Mexico after Rickerson's disappearance.

Michael J. Violante was serving as county public defender when Matt's case was referred to that office. He assigned the case to two of his assistants. "Other than assign it, I had nothing to do with the case," he said.

Violante resigned as public defender, effective April 6, expressly to avoid such conflicts, since he was running for district attorney, a post the Niagara Falls Republican won without opposition in Tuesday's election. He said the Matt case is the only one where a conflict still exists.

Outgoing District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III, who had hoped to prosecute the case before leaving office at the end of the year, abandoned that hope Thursday. He said a defense request for independent handwriting analysis of letters allegedly written by Matt will force a delay in the trial, which was supposed to begin Nov. 19.

Also, he said Violante's prior involvement on the defense side, however slight, "creates at least the appearance of a conflict of interest."

Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza said, "I think the best way to solve that dilemma is to prevail on the Erie County district attorney's office to loan us a prosecutor."

Another possibility was to obtain new defense lawyers, but Violante said Assistant Public Defenders Christopher A. Privateer and A. Joseph Catalano "have lived with this guy [Matt] for nine months, and the judge doesn't see that as a viable option."

Privateer said, "We figure it'll take whoever [the prosecutor] is at least a month [to study the file]."

Sperrazza indicated Jan. 14 as a possible new trial date.

As for the letters, Murphy said two have surfaced that were ostensibly written by Matt and have a bearing on the case. At least one was sent to Bates' family; their contents have not been disclosed. Asked if Matt had written them, Murphy said, "We believe one was and one wasn't."

He said a report from a state police handwriting expert in Albany was received this week.

But Privateer said there are as many as 17 handwritten documents that need to be analyzed. He said the closest handwriting expert who would work for the defense is in Toronto, and his work can't begin until the original letters are returned from Albany.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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