Robert J. Thousand expressed remorse as he was sentenced Wednesday to 20 years in prison for his role in the death of a Buffalo youth counselor.
Thousand, 18, of Rochester, had accepted a plea offer in June, admitting to first-degree manslaughter in the June 8, 2009, bludgeoning death of Renee C. Greco, and agreeing to testify against Anthony J. Allen, 19, of Rochester.
Allen was convicted in September of second-degree murder and was sentenced Dec. 10 to 25 years to life in prison.
Thousand testified at Allen's trial that Allen recruited him into a scheme to kill Greco after the residents of Avenue House, a Lockport group home for troubled teenagers, learned of a police investigation into the theft of money from the Avenue House office a day before.
Thousand said on the witness stand that he threw a blanket over Greco's head as she sat at a table playing cards with other residents, before Allen started pounding her head with a wooden table leg.
At his first sentencing date Nov. 12, Thousand surprised his court-appointed defense attorney, Joseph Terranova, by seeking to take back his guilty plea. Terranova refused to be a party to that, so another attorney, Jeremy Schwartz, was assigned to make that argument.
Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza ruled Wednesday that the plea process was legally airtight and brushed off the motion before proceeding to the sentencing.
If Sperrazza had agreed to cancel the guilty plea, Thousand would have gone to trial on the same charges Allen originally faced, risking a sentence of up to life in prison if convicted. His testimony at Allen's trial, in which Thousand admitted involvement in the killing, could have been used against him.
"I'm sorry. I truly am. I can't stress enough that I never intended for Ms. Greco to die," Thousand said in court. "I take responsibility for doing what I did and being stupid enough to [take part in the scheme]."
"Robert at least had a conscience," conceded Tammy Sloper, former assistant supervisor of Avenue House, "but I don't believe he's truly sorry."
"Every person who took the stand said [Greco] was a great person -- even you, Robert," said Sara Wilkowski, a Greco family friend, who spoke in court before the sentencing. "The murder you confessed to participating in wasn't a random stranger, it was somebody who was trying to help you."
Sloper said she worked with Thousand and left the house about an hour before Greco was attacked.
"Renee did like Robert," Sloper said. "He took that and ran with it. He knew he could set her up."
The plea deal pegged Thousand's sentence at something between 20 and 25 years. Sperrazza told Thousand she chose the lowest available sentence under terms of the deal "because I believe that because of your testimony at trial, there was a conviction for Anthony Allen, and I believe he will never get out of prison."
Deputy District Attorney Holly E. Sloma asked for the maximum sentence, calling the plea deal "a gift."
After court, Sloma said, "I respect the court's decision, given that [Thousand] did provide what we considered to be truthful and accurate testimony."
Sperrazza said that before Thousand took the witness stand, she overheard Terranova tell him, "For once in your miserable life, do the right thing."
Schwartz said, "Although there was another table leg there for [Thousand] to use, he did not use it."
Schwartz's argument that Thousand wasn't guilty of manslaughter because he had no intent to cause harm to Greco was swatted aside by Sperrazza, who noted that she asked Thousand June 22 if he intentionally took part in an effort to cause serious physical injury that resulted in death, and that Thousand then replied, "Yes, your Honor."
Sloma quoted Thousand as telling police, "The original thing was to sort of knock her out, take what we needed and leave."
The prosecutor said that was a confession to felony murder, which is causing a victim's death while committing another felony. In this case, that was the theft of Greco's belongings and the Avenue House van.
After Sperrazza rejected Schwartz's effort to revoke the plea, Terranova took over for the sentencing.
"I don't feel comfortable with Mr. Terranova handling my case," Thousand said. He shook his head as Terranova explained that he worked out the plea deal because he thought there was a strong possibility Thousand would be convicted of murder and never have a chance to get out of prison.
After court, Terranova said he had "the professional satisfaction" of doing his best for his client.
"Eventually [all my murder clients] will probably come to the same conclusion," Terranova said, "if not now, while they're sitting in a cell somewhere."