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Falls man’s guilty plea in wife’s murder is thrown out

Kelvin W. Robinson of Niagara Falls, who admitted stabbing his wife to death in 2004, won his appeal Friday, on his third try.

A four-judge panel in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court ruled unanimously that incomplete questioning by the judge who took Robinson’s guilty plea means that the plea was invalid and the case should be reopened. He stays behind bars in the meantime.

Assistant District Attorney Thomas H. Brandt, who argued the appeal, said Friday that the Court of Appeals can be asked to take the case.

Niagara County District Attorney Michael J. Violante was the county’s public defender in 2004 and negotiated Robinson’s plea deal.

Robinson, 56, is serving a sentence of 18 years to life in Attica Correctional Facility for the March 14, 2004, death of his wife of five years, Coleen, 38, in their Niagara Avenue home. He pleaded guilty, not to the regular charge of intentional killing, but to murder with “depraved indifference to human life.”

But in 2006, two years after Robinson’s plea, the state Court of Appeals changed the interpretation of that section of the law.

It ruled that “depraved indifference” is something the killer has in his mind, rather than being based on something he did to the victim. The state’s highest court also said that a one-on-one knifing almost never would qualify as depraved indifference.

The Appellate Division said it could apply that principle retroactively to Robinson’s case, because Robinson’s first unsuccessful appeal was pending in 2006.

The Appellate Division also said that County Judge Peter L. Broderick Sr., who took Robinson’s plea, didn’t nail down the issue when he questioned the defendant.

The winning argument made by Robinson’s new attorney, Brian Schiffrin of Rochester, was that what Robinson said actually negated the claim of depraved indifference.

“Me and my wife was having problems and she didn’t talk to me, like, five or six days, and she pulled a knife and I took it from her and – and stabbed her in the throat and in the back. She passed away from there,” Robinson said, according to the court transcript.

“Did you do that intentionally?” Broderick asked.

“Judge, he’s pleading under the reckless count,” Violante said.

“I understand that, but he just said he stabbed her. Did you do that consciously? Were you aware that you were doing that?” Broderick asked Robinson.

“I did it during the struggle, trying to take it away from her,” Robinson said. “I did it recklessly.”

“You’re telling me that you acted with a conscious disregard for her safety?” Broderick asked. Robinson replied, “Yes.”

At sentencing, Assistant District Attorney Claudette S. Caldwell told Broderick, “He still continues to characterize it as an accident, a struggle, but given the wounds that she suffered, that’s obviously not possible.”

The guilty plea was upheld by the Appellate Division in June 2007, and the Court of Appeals refused to take the case. In 2009, State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. vehemently rejected Robinson’s second appeal, which attempted to show that Violante had been ineffective.