Defense attorney Joseph M. LaTona on Thursday asked the judge in the John A. Polley homicide case for permission to attack how the indictment was obtained and again sought to put Niagara County District Attorney Michael J. Violante on the witness stand.
LaTona argued in a pretrial conference that a murder indictment against Polley might have stemmed from pressure brought to bear by the family of the victim, Polley's ex-wife Julia A. Polley.
"Experienced detectives of the Niagara Falls Police Department charged this as a manslaughter case," LaTona said. But the grand jury returned an indictment charging John Polley with murder -- intentional killing -- as well as manslaughter, which is killing that is reckless but likely unintentional.
Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza has refused to dismiss the murder count, ruling the grand jury heard enough evidence to sustain it. But she put off a decision until late October on most of LaTona's demands and postponed the trial from Sept. 21 to Jan. 11.
Julia Polley, 52, died Jan. 11 from a gunshot wound to the head in the bedroom of her ex-husband's home on 78th Street in Niagara Falls. John Polley, 66, told police the shooting occurred accidentally as the couple was playing with one of his guns during foreplay. He said they were planning to have sex after a day of drinking.
LaTona charged that the murder count in the indictment resulted from pressure by the woman's family -- she has 10 adult children or siblings -- including an online petition that campaigned for heavier charges.
The petition, posted at thepetitionsite.com, gathered 123 signatures between March 6 and May 10 in favor of a premeditated murder charge. Most of the signers were either friends or relatives of the victims or completely anonymous. But LaTona said he wants to be able to tell the trial jury about the purported pressure for a murder charge.
Sperrazza retorted, "Unless you can show me that pressure extended into the grand jury, I'm not going to allow it." The judge said it's not at all unusual for a grand jury to indict a defendant on more serious charges than police originally file.
LaTona said, "Why? Who's pulling the strings? Who's making it happen?"
"The grand jury was not privy to any of this information," Assistant District Attorney Claudette S. Caldwell said. Nor did they hear about a letter LaTona said was written after Polley's arrest by a woman who attributed a murder motive to him.
LaTona also wants to be able to tell the jury about a firebombing of the 78th Street house in July.
Caldwell said a Molotov cocktail was hurled into the residence, but it happened long after the homicide, not to mention the indictment, which was handed up in March.
"If someone who knew Julia decided to burn down the defendant's house, that's not right, but it's got nothing to do with the defendant's guilt," the prosecutor said.
LaTona said he wants the court to issue a subpoena for more internal Niagara Falls Police Department documents. He also wants to put Violante on the stand to testify about the circumstances of the Polleys' divorce in 2002. Violante, in private practice at the time, represented John Polley in that case.
LaTona said he wants Violante to tell the jury that there was no violence in the marriage and the split was a "no-fault divorce." Sperrazza said the attorneys should merely agree to a stipulation to present to the jury, and Caldwell said she'd go along with that, but LaTona was reluctant. The judge told him to "explore other options," but seemed unwilling to allow Violante to testify.