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Embracing the righting of a wrong

It was a meeting that was 22 years in the making. At about 10 o'clock Tuesday morning, rumpled Detective Dennis Delano and innocent victim Anthony Capozzi came face to face for the first time.

Capozzi was wrongly convicted of a pair of rapes in and near Delaware Park in the 1980s. Delano is the bearlike Buffalo cop who discovered the trail of evidence that finally freed him.

The seen-it-all cop and the childlike, mentally ill man did what two people anywhere do when the moment is too much for words: They hugged.

"Everything [in my career] is anticlimactic from here on," said Delano, sitting later in his downtown office. "It just breaks your heart, to think about what this guy has gone through."

There ought to be a bumper sticker that reads: Cops Are People, Too. Behind the badge of every good cop is a hunger for truth and a thirst for justice. That is why they walk that first day into the police academy. Some -- after years in an imperfect system -- get jaded, some get burned out, a few turn crooked. But most of them do not forget the reason why they first put on a uniform.

Most of the time, justice means finding the bad guy and putting him behind bars. Once in a while, it means discovering that the wrong guy is sitting in that cell. To Delano, and to all the cops who helped Capozzi regain the gift of freedom, righting a wrong mattered as much as catching any criminal. They followed their instincts. It led to the reversal of a horrible wrong.

We should all feel good about that. No one can give Anthony Capozzi back the past 22 years. The man, and the family that suffered with him, is due a lot of care and compensation, and I hope to God they get it.

But like with anything in life, you do what you can, when you can. That is what Delano and the others did. That is why a 50-year-old man can again decide what he wants to do with every day. Welcome to the rest of your life, Anthony Capozzi.

Delano was in court earlier this week, when a judge declared Capozzi a free man.

"When I heard those words, 'Conviction vacated,' " said Delano, "it was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling."

Delano was part of the 12-member Bike Path Rapist Task Force put together last fall. The job was to catch the monster who terrorized area women for decades. The trail led to the arrest of Altemio Sanchez, suspected by police in three murders and numerous sexual assaults. On the way to Sanchez's arrest, Delano and the others discovered Capozzi.

Delano thought that the Bike Path Rapist's first suspected attack, in 1986 in Delaware Park, seemed too precise for a first-timer. He found the files on prior rapes in or near Delaware Park -- including the two Capozzi was convicted of. Delano and the other task force cops dug in.

It hit them like a stick: The methods and descriptions of the earlier rapes nearly exactly fit the Bike Path Rapist's style.

"Just about everybody on the task force," said Delano, "agreed that [Capozzi] did not do those crimes."

Delano months ago publicly questioned Capozzi's guilt. The district attorney was not eager to reopen a case on circumstantial evidence and the instincts of a dozen good cops. Then long-forgotten evidence slides were discovered in a file drawer at Erie County Medical Center. The DNA samples cleared Capozzi of the rapes -- and implicated Sanchez.

The circle completed Tuesday morning, when the two men -- justice-seeking cop and innocent victim -- finally met. With their heartfelt hug, truth finally found its way home.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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