When truly horrific crimes occurred in Western New York, the people who committed them often turned to John R. Nuchereno for help.
The people he represented included John Justice, the Kenmore honor student who killed his family and a neighbor in 1985; the notorious Nushawn Williams, the Chautauqua County man who went to prison in the 1990s for infecting young women with the virus that caused AIDS; and dozens of people suffering with mental illnesses accused of murder, rape and other atrocities.
Nuchereno died on Wednesday in Roswell Park Cancer Institute of complications from chemotherapy and radiation treatment following a recurrence of leukemia after what was believed to be a successful bone marrow transplant 18 months ago. He was 64.
He is fondly remembered by colleagues as a man who worked hard to defend clients whose criminal acts stemmed from mental illness.
“John took on a lot of cases that other attorneys either weren’t equipped to handle, or didn’t want to handle,” recalled defense lawyer Joseph J. Terranova, a close friend who worked with Nuchereno on many cases over three decades. “He wasn’t a flashy or flamboyant guy, but I would put him on a pedestal. He worked very hard to learn and understand the legal issues surrounding mental illness. And then, he willingly shared his knowledge with other lawyers and law students.”
State Supreme Court Judge Christopher J. Burns, who knew Nuchereno since the early 1970s, agreed.
“When you had a really tough case and needed someone to take the assignment, John would never turn it down,” Burns said. “And he was not only a very good attorney and advocate for his clients, he was a good and loyal friend to many people.”
Nuchereno operated law offices in Buffalo and Orchard Park with his wife and law partner, Catherine E. Nagel.
An attorney for nearly 40 years, Nuchereno handled more cases of homicide or extreme violence than almost any other defense lawyer, according to Terranova and others active in the field. His law office said Nuchereno tried hundreds of criminal cases, including at least 50 homicide cases that went to jury trials.
Over the years, Nuchereno represented several adult clients accused of killing infants or little children. While Nuchereno felt sorry for the victims and their families, he also felt a strong responsibility to provide the best possible defense for his clients, Terranova said.
“I worked closely with John on many cases, disturbing cases,” Terranova said. “John was like a rock. He focused on providing the best, most professional help for the client. I saw him get upset a few times when he felt justice was not done for his clients.”
In addition to John Justice and Nushawn Williams, Nuchereno represented many other clients charged or convicted of infamous crimes.
They included Richard J. McKeon Jr., a former police officer who was sentenced to 20 years in prison after he strangled his girlfriend and set her body on fire in Orleans County in 2008; David Heck of the Town of Tonawanda, who was sentenced to 25 years after killing his mother on Christmas Eve in 2009; Luke Wright of North Collins, who was sentenced to 19 years after abusing and assaulting his mentally retarded sister in 2009; and Ahmir Cole of Buffalo, who was sentenced to life in prison after killing a Main Street restaurant owner during a 2006 robbery. He also represented Thomas Montgomery, a former church deacon who was sentenced to 20 years after he fatally shot a co-worker in Clarence in 2006. The co-worker and Montgomery were involved in an Internet love triangle with a woman.
Born and raised in Buffalo, Nuchereno was a graduate of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, the University at Buffalo and Louisiana State University Law School.
He was a decorated Army veteran who served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division.
Nuchereno taught classes on the law at UB Law School and Hilbert College. An active member of the Erie County and New York State bar associations, he was chairman of the Attorney Grievance Committee for Western New York, a past director of the Erie County Society for Aid to Indigent Prisoners, and a past chairman of the Criminal Law Committee of the Erie County Bar Association. He was also a founding director of the UB Law School’s Trial Advocacy Institute and its Innocence and Justice Project.
“He was one of the top experts in the area of crimes involving people with mental illness. He wrote legal papers that he shared with his law students and fellow lawyers, that could have been books,” Terranova said. “He was very unselfish about sharing all the information he had.”
Nuchereno had a wonderful sense of humor and was a delightful story teller, both Terranova and Burns said.
The attorney enjoyed golf, canoeing and visiting the Adirondack Mountains.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his first wife, Heidi Nuchereno; two daughters, Whitney and Regan; two sisters, Ruth McGuire and Claire Witt; and two brothers, Daniel and James Jr.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. Monday in Christ the King Church, 30 Lamarck Drive, Amherst.