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Murder conviction reduced in ‘brutal’ stabbing at party

When Todd R. Heatley was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in 2010 for stabbing a man eight times and killing him, the judge called the crime “about as brutal as it gets.”

But it did not rise to murder, an appeals court has ruled.

The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court found that the evidence proved that Heatley intended only to cause serious physical injury when he stabbed 19-year-old Jacob Herbert. So the appellate court reduced his conviction from second-degree murder to first-degree manslaughter.

During the trial, jurors found that Heatley intended to kill Herbert, an element of the crime needed to convict him of second-degree murder.

“We agree with defendant that, despite the number of injuries the victim sustained, including a single fatal stab wound, the credible evidence is not sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to kill the victim,” Presiding Justice Henry J. Scudder wrote in the majority opinion.

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III sees the case differently.

“A jury, after hearing all the evidence in a court of law, came back with a murder conviction,” Sedita said. “It rightly determined that when you stab another human being eight times, including three times in the back, with two knives, you obviously mean to kill them. Most reasonable people would agree with that.”

Sedita said he respectfully disagrees with the Appellate Division’s ruling.

The appellate judges said the evidence proved that Heatley intended to seriously injure Herbert, who had Heatley in a headlock and was punching him, so that Herbert would release him.

A jury in June 2010 convicted Heatley of second-degree murder for fatally stabbing the 19-year-old Clarence man during a party Oct. 31, 2009, on Lisbon Avenue in Buffalo.

A dispute arose outside a Halloween keg party at the house in the University District.

The appellate court, in addition to reducing the conviction to first-degree manslaughter, vacated the sentence and sent the case back to Erie County Judge Sheila A. DiTullio for resentencing.

Heatley, 32, of Buffalo, now could face between the minimum of five years in prison and the maximum of 25 years on the manslaughter count.

Heatley’s attorney said another appeal may be forthcoming.

David M. Abbatoy Jr., a Rochester attorney who handled Heatley’s appeal before the appellate court in Rochester, said he may ask the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, to rule on whether the appellate court’s decision went far enough.

If Heatley follows through with the further appeal, the Court of Appeals would be asked whether the reduction to manslaughter is acceptable or if the indictment should be dismissed.

A dissenting Appellate Division judge said the murder indictment should be dismissed.

Abbatoy said two brothers were holding separate parties in the two-family home on Lisbon. The older brother was with 10 to 15 people upstairs, where Heatley worked as a disc jockey.

The younger brother was holding a keg party downstairs that attracted hundreds of people, including Herbert, who each paid $5 to get in.

After neighbors called to complain about the keg party, police tried to break it up twice, but the party later resumed each time, Abbatoy said. Finally, the younger brother kicked out the partygoers. They became upset and started kicking the door.

The older brother and Heatley went outside and tried to resolve the dispute, but the older brother got into a fight with a friend of Herbert’s, Abbatoy said. Heatley intervened, leading to the confrontation with Herbert.

“We conclude that the evidence is not sufficient to prove the element of intent to kill because the physical evidence, particularly the location of the stab wounds (in the back and both underarms) supports the conclusion that defendant, during an altercation that the victim initiated, stabbed the victim in an effort to have the victim release him and not with an intent to kill him,” the court ruled.

The appellate judges declined to dismiss the indictment.

“Instead,” Scudder wrote, “we conclude that the conviction should be reduced … to the lesser included offense of manslaughter in the first degree and the matter should be remitted to County Court for sentencing on the lesser included offense.”

At the trial, DiTullio included the lesser offenses of first- and second-degree manslaughter in her legal instructions to the jury. Jurors still convicted Heatley of intentional murder.

Heatley testified at his trial that Herbert was holding Heatley’s neck under his arm and punching Heatley and that he felt dizzy and was afraid that he would pass out and then “be demolished,” according to the appellate court.

Heatley said he removed two “throwing” knives from a sheath on his belt and stabbed the victim in an effort to get him to release him.

The prosecution pointed out to jurors that Herbert was 5 inches shorter and only slightly heavier than Heatley and that he was not armed.

The justices said Heatley stabbed the victim eight times, then left the scene and discarded the knives, which were later recovered by the police. The knives were described by a police witness as having 2- to 3-inch blades, only the tips of which were sharp.

Prosecution witnesses testified that Herbert was angry and aggressive because he had been asked to leave the party and that Heatley, along with others, attempted to defuse the situation developing between the victim and his friend, and the host of the party.