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Violinist’s slaying could be a death penalty case

There are no murder charges at this point – a Chautauqua County grand jury will decide that later – but the two men accused of killing concert violinist Mary E. Whitaker already find themselves facing life in prison and maybe the death penalty.

Jonathan M. Conklin and Charles Sanford are charged with three federal crimes at this point, and at least two of them carry a maximum penalty of death. The final decision on whether the Whitaker killing becomes a capital case rests with the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

“They’re charged with a crime of violence,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy C. Lynch told the court Thursday. And “the crime, the murder, of Miss Whitaker, is quite gruesome.”

Lynch outlined the federal charges, including carjacking and use of a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime, during a bail hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder.

He told Schroeder that Conklin and Sanford have criminal records and are a risk to flee if released from jail. Conklin has four prior felony convictions, he said, and Sanford has a single felony conviction for statutory sexual assault.

“Both of these defendants are homeless,” Lynch said. “They have no resources for bail.”

Lynch also provided a graphic account of Whitaker’s slaying in the Town of Westfield last week, and at one point described the musician as “gurgling in her own blood” when she was allegedly stabbed in the neck by Sanford.

He also told the judge that authorities have videotaped confessions from both men.

The defense attorneys in the case, Mark J. Mahoney and Assistant Federal Public Defender Kimberly A. Schechter, did not oppose the government’s request for continued incarceration. “At this point, we are not requesting release,” Schechter said.

Schroeder ordered the two men held without bail.

Conklin, 43, and Sanford, 30, are accused of killing Whitaker, 61, at her summer home in Westfield.

Whitaker, a concert violinist who performed with the Westchester Philharmonic and on Broadway, spent her summers in Westfield while performing with the Chautauqua Institution Symphony Orchestra.