Facing the end of his career as a lawyer, John Peter Duffy pleaded guilty Thursday to a felony charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident in connection with the hit-and-run death of Hilbert College sophomore Meghan Sorbera.
Waiving grand jury action, Duffy, 41, of Pinyon Drive, Orchard Park, pleaded guilty to the highest count that could have been filed against him after a grand jury investigation of the Oct. 18 incident.
During the plea proceeding, State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski refused to give the lawyer a sentencing commitment, pointedly telling him, "I am not making any commitment as to punishment or sentence."
Duffy could face 2 1/3 to seven years in prison.
Sorbera, 19, a native of Burlington Flats near Cooperstown, was fatally struck by Duffy's SUV in the 5700 block of South Park Avenue. She was returning to the nearby college campus with two friends after a night of working at a haunted house at the Erie County Fairgrounds at about 1:35 a.m.
It was the same stretch of South Park Avenue where John W. Condon, 86, a legendary Buffalo defense attorney, and his wife, Joan, 79, were killed Wednesday when their van was slammed by a speeding van that ran a red light at the intersection of South Park and Sowles Road.
Duffy was allowed to remain free on his own recognizance pending his Feb. 20 sentencing. Under state law, as an attorney, he faces automatic disbarment for the felony conviction. Duffy has a law office in the Village of Hamburg.
He declined to comment as he left the downtown Buffalo courtroom Thursday with his wife and an associate of his Hamburg law firm.
Meghan's parents, Peter and Susan Sorbera, could not be reached to comment on the guilty plea Thursday afternoon.
The Sorberas were at Hilbert College in Hamburg for a memorial service and tree planting on Monday, where they described relief that someone had been charged in the case. They said they would advocate for tougher penalties against hit-and-run drivers.
"This gentleman took my daughter," Peter Sorbera said.
Daniel J. Chiacchia, Duffy's lawyer, said his client is "overwhelmed" emotionally by the tragedy and "shocked by the fact that this loss occurred."
He insisted that Duffy initially thought he had struck a garbage can along the side of the road and did not learn of the fatal nature of the incident until about 36 hours later.
Before his arrest a week ago, Duffy "made some regrettable decisions," Chiacchia said. He declined to comment further.
During the brief plea proceeding, Chiacchia told the judge he is overseeing an investigation of the incident in an effort to pin down any possible "mitigating factors" that could influence the sentence.
Lynette M. Reda, chief of the Erie County district attorney's Vehicular Crimes Bureau, who would allow Duffy to plead guilty to only the highest charge he could have faced, agreed to allow him to remain free on his own recognizance.
Although he was believed to have been drinking at the time of the accident, Duffy wasn't arrested until five days after the accident, so it was not known whether he was legally drunk when the accident occurred.
Duffy, therefore, was not charged with driving while intoxicated. However, state law now treats leaving the scene of a fatal accident with the same severity as being involved in a fatality while driving drunk.
Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said the speed of Duffy's plea was unusual but not unprecedented.
"He knew the strength of the case we had and he told people he did not want to put his family or the victim's family through long, drawn-out court proceedings," Clark said.
With the judge refusing to give a sentencing commitment, Duffy may well have realized that an admission of guilt so soon after the crime "could give credence to his claims of remorse" and possibly influence the judge to impose a less-severe sentence than he had planned, Clark said.
Hamburg Capt. A. Daniel Shea, chief of detectives, and several other detectives who tracked down Duffy observed the plea Thursday but declined to comment afterward.
In canvassing the area around the crime scene, Town of Hamburg detectives learned that an SUV matching the description of the hit-and-run vehicle visited the drive-through window of a restaurant just minutes before the accident and was captured on the restaurant's surveillance camera.
The detectives tracked the vehicle to Duffy and learned from his Orchard Park neighbors that Duffy had attempted to repair the vehicle at his home days after the fatal incident.
Witnesses told investigators that the vehicle that hit Sorbera had slowed down after the impact but then drove off.
Parts of Duffy's SUV, including a black casing to the passenger side fog light, pieces of the headlight cover and a yellow marker light were found on the ground at the accident scene.
News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report.