In May 1995, a killer snuffed out the life of Louise Cicelsky, an 82-year-old businesswoman, in her apartment on Longmeadow Road in Amherst.
Investigators believe a man robbed and stabbed Cicelsky, who stood just 4 feet and 7 inches tall, while an accomplice stood nearby and watched.
The killer, who plunged a knife eight times into the neck of the widow, was never caught.
But Renay Lynch confessed to being the accomplice, and was convicted by a jury and sent to state prison for 25 years to life. Now 61, she remains behind bars.
For more than two decades, Lynch has alleged that Amherst detectives "coerced" her into giving a "false confession," and she insists she is not guilty. She is now represented by a team of lawyers, including members of the New York City-based Innocence Project. They asked a state judge Friday to order new DNA tests on physical evidence from the Longmeadow home where Cicelsky was slain.
The Erie County district attorney's office opposed the request, noting that Lynch's conviction twice has been upheld after appeals in the state and federal courts.
State Supreme Court Judge M. William Boller listened to legal arguments from both sides for an hour. He said he needs to read transcripts from the 1995 trial before he decides whether to order new DNA tests.
But before ending the court session, Boller raised a question: Aside from the legal questions surrounding Lynch's conviction, don't prosecutors want to know who stabbed and killed Cicelsky?
"If we do this testing, could we find DNA out there that identifies this third party?" Boller asked. "It would be nice to know who was there and who did the actual stabbing."
Defense lawyer Jane Fisher-Byrialsen and co-counsel Susan Friedman raised the same question. Friedman asked why prosecutors are not "wondering whose DNA is at the crime scene … and who actually stabbed this woman."
"It's crucial to justice to answer this question," Friedman said.
Prosecutors and police are "absolutely" interested in knowing who stabbed Cicelsky, District Attorney John J. Flynn told The Buffalo News after the hearing, but they also believe that Lynch's conviction as an accessory to the murder was justified.
"We believe that Renay Lynch was present and helped to set up this crime, but we do not believe she touched the victim, the weapon or anything else in the apartment. That is why we opposed this motion. Her DNA will not be there," Flynn said. "However, once the current proceedings are complete, I will deal with the further investigation to try and ascertain who is the other participant in the crime…and that could include testing the DNA found at the scene.
"Finding out who actually physically committed the murder is important to me, and I will do whatever I can to accomplish that goal.”
Frank A. Sedita III, who is now Boller's colleague as a State Supreme Court judge, was the prosecutor at Lynch's 1997 trial.
'Active and vibrant' at 82
At 82, Louise Cicelsky was busier and more energetic than many people half her age, according to people who knew her. They described her as active, vibrant and opinionated.
"She was a spunky elderly woman, still with a lot of life left in her," a friend, Jack Reich, told a News reporter after Cicelsky's murder.
A devout Jew who was born in Lithuania, Cicelsky emigrated to America with her late husband, Jerry Cicelsky, and their two small children, in 1937. During World War II, she worked in the Curtiss-Wright aviation plant in Buffalo. She later bought rental properties in Buffalo and Amherst.
In her 80s, she attended Jewish services almost every day at a temple near her home. Friends said she swam at a health club two or three times a week, participated in a senior bowling league and volunteered in a Kosher Meals on Wheels program. She also was a landlord who owned and managed several rental properties in Buffalo and Amherst. She lived in an apartment on Longmeadow Road, in a generally quiet middle-class neighborhood.
In that apartment, sometime late May 18 or early May 19, 1995, somebody robbed and attacked Louise Cicelsky. In addition to eight stab wounds, one of her teeth was knocked out and she had a black eye when a family member found her May 19, prosecutors said.
Renay Lynch was a tenant in one Cicelsky's properties, an apartment house on Lisbon Avenue in Buffalo.
She became involved in the murder investigation within hours of the crime, according to court papers.
Police Capt. Michael Melton was searching the Cicelsky home for evidence when a woman called the apartment telephone. The woman identified herself as Cicelsky's niece and asked if Cicelsky was OK. Melton asked the woman for her name, and she identified herself as Renay Lynch of Lisbon Avenue.
Detective Joseph A. LaCorte was sent to the Lisbon address to talk with Lynch, and Lynch admitted she was not the victim's niece. But she told LaCorte that she was "very close" to Cicelsky and worried about her safety after a relative told her she had seen police cars at Cicelsky's home.
Over the next 18 months, LaCorte had a series of conversations with Lynch about the crime. Then in November 1996, after Lynch was arrested for the alleged theft of a fur coat, LaCorte and another detective, Raymond Klimczak, went to question Lynch.
That is when Lynch told the detectives that she had gone with a man named Kareem Walker to rob Cicelsky, according to prosecutors.
Detectives said Lynch told them that when Cicelsky demanded to know what Walker was doing in her home, Walker punched her twice in the face, knocking a wig off her head and knocking her temporarily unconscious.
After taking money from the woman's bedroom, Walker stabbed Cicelsky in the neck, leaving her body between a kitchen and living room. Detectives said Lynch told them Walker had "blood all over him" when she and Walker fled the apartment. Lynch also told them Walker later gave her $1,000 from the robbery.
Months later, when the case went to trial, Lynch testified that the statement she gave police was false. She said she wasn’t involved in the robbery with Walker or anyone else.
But a woman who was a prisoner with Lynch in the Erie County Holding Center testified that Lynch admitted taking part in the murder but would not say who else was involved.
A jury convicted Lynch of robbery and murder, as an accessory who helped set up the crime and watched it happen.
Defense attorneys said the "jailhouse snitch" later recanted her statement and has since died.
As for Walker, he was never charged. Police said they could not obtain sufficient evidence to charge him.
Why make a false confession?
Why would Lynch make a statement implicating another person and admitting to a crime that she did not commit?
Her lawyers said Lynch was heavily addicted to crack cocaine and was coerced. They also said LaCorte promised Lynch that she would not be prosecuted for murder if she admitted she was in the apartment and witnessed what happened.
They say LaCorte told Lynch that he knew she didn’t kill Cicelsky but needed her to admit she was "at the crime scene" in order to make a strong case against the man who stabbed the victim.
LaCorte, who is now retired, vehemently denies the confession was coerced.
"Nobody bullied her into confessing," LaCorte told The News in an interview. "She had stolen a fur coat, and she thought she could get off of that charge by telling us about the murder. It was clear cut. She knew exactly what she was doing. We stopped the interview to explain her rights to her, including her right to have an attorney present. She turned down the offer of having an attorney there and went on with her statement."
What's more, Lynch's confession included facts that only someone involved in the crime would be likely to know, according to LaCorte and Assistant District Attorney Donna A. Milling, who heads the appeals bureau of the District Attorney's Office.
Those facts included information about the killer punching Cicelsky in the face so hard that he knocked her wig off. It also included information that Cicelsky often left her back door open to let fresh air into her apartment.
Those facts never were revealed in any news stories about the murder, Milling said.
But Lynch may have heard those details from detectives who questioned her over many months, said Fisher-Byrialsen, one of Lynch's new defense attorneys.
False confessions are fairly common in the criminal justice system, according to her and Friedman. Both have handled many wrongful conviction cases. Since the 1990s, they said, 352 people have been freed from prisons throughout the country because of DNA evidence. In more than one-fourth of those cases, the defense attorneys said, a false confession was given.
As proof that Lynch's confession was bogus, defense lawyers told Judge Boller that Lynch falsely identified Kareem Walker as the killer. They noted that police decided not to charge Walker with any crime.
Milling countered by saying that, a year after the murder, Amherst police learned that Walker had been arrested in Florida and traveled there to interview him. Amherst detectives then "ruled him out as a suspect," Milling said. But she, LaCorte and Flynn declined to say what prompted police to rule out Walker as a suspect.
When Lynch testified at her trial, she said she had made up the story about her and Walker, Milling said.
Though Walker was never charged with the murder, defense attorneys said prosecutors built their murder trial around Lynch's statement implicating herself and Walker.
Prosecutors "argued that Renay Lynch committed this crime with Kareem Walker," Friedman told the judge.
"Kareem Walker's name was mentioned 16 times by prosecutors" as the "unindicted conspirator" in the case.
DNA evidence collection
Procedures for collecting and evaluating DNA evidence have greatly improved since the 1995, the defense attorneys told Judge Boller.
Friedman said a modern DNA analysis of numerous pieces of evidence from the Cicelsky's home – including a bloody fingerprint on a dresser, a telephone cord, fingernail clippings from the victim, and 31 locations where "blood swabs" were taken – could turn up evidence that would help police find the killer.
The DNA evidence could be compared to a national database that contains the DNA of millions of violent criminals, she told the judge.
"The rudimentary methods used in the 1990s would have been unable to provide the detail and sensitivity available through today's advanced DNA testing standards," Fisher-Byrialsen said.
Attorney Barry C. Scheck is also part of Lynch's defense team, although he was not present for the hearing in Buffalo on Friday.
Scheck and defense attorney Peter J. Neufeld founded the Innocence Project in 1992. The two men were part of the legal "Dream Team" that helped O.J. Simpson win an acquittal on two murder charges in 1995. The organization says it has used DNA evidence to help exonerate about 200 men and women who were wrongly convicted of murder, sexual assaults and other crimes.
Renay Lynch has had two heart attacks while behind bars, Fisher-Byrialsen said. She will be eligible to apply for a release on parole in 2021.
"She has five grandchildren and has only ever seen them in prison," the defense attorney said.
Boller indicated that he will not make his decision on the request for more DNA tests until at least March, after receiving additional documents from both sides.
"I have a lot of homework to do," the judge said.