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Conviction in three hours puts an end to a murder case that lingered for 35 years

It took a jury less than three hours Friday afternoon to convict Michael Rodriguez in a 35-year-old murder that four Erie County prosecutors had refused to take.

An Erie County jury convicted the 60-year-old Rodriguez of second-degree murder in the death of his estranged wife, Patricia, in a Lackawanna cemetery on Good Friday in 1979. The 21-year-old mother of two was stabbed more than 100 times.

In an highly unusual move, the state attorney general took on the case last year after state and local police went to him with new evidence, including DNA and witnesses.

“Our goal in bringing this case was to get justice for Patty, and I hope today’s verdict brings a small measure of comfort to her family and friends,” Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a prepared statement. “No murder should go unsolved. Today’s verdict is a reminder that we will never stop seeking justice for victims and their families.”

A string of county prosecutors – Edward C. Cosgrove, Kevin M. Dillon, Frank J. Clark and Frank A. Sedita III – all had refused to prosecute the case.

When he decided to prosecute last year, Schneiderman said that modern DNA evidence techniques and dogged pursuit by the state police helped lead to the indictment.

“It’s a great example of good collaborative work by prosecutors and investigators,” Schneiderman said at that time.

State police investigators reopened the long-unsolved murder case in 2009 at the request of Lackawanna Police Chief James L. Michel Jr.

After Schneiderman’s prosecutors secured an indictment last year, Sedita pointed out that three previous county district attorneys had also passed on pressing charges against Rodriguez. He said it was a “tough one” not to prosecute.

“I am conflicted about what I think about his guilt or innocence vs. what I think I could prove,” Sedita said then.

But he said he stood willing to assist in the state prosecution, and state prosecutors listed Sedita among many people they thanked Friday after the jury returned its verdict.

Police and victims’ families have criticized Sedita in recent years for being hesitant about taking on cases unless they were “slam dunks.”

Sedita did not return phone call Friday after the verdict.

New evidence emerged

State Police Investigator Christopher S. Weber took a second look at forensic evidence found in Holy Cross Cemetery, used scientific technology that did not exist at the time of the slaying and re-interviewed witnesses.

Also key to the prosecution were three witnesses: two former girlfriends of Rodriguez and a jail informant. All said the Rodriguez had confessed – years ago to the girlfriends and recently to the informant – to killing Patricia Rodriguez.

The verdict was announced at around 4:30 p.m., sending up sighs and gasps from the packed courtroom.

Rodriguez bowed his head and looked down at the table in front of him, and his current wife, who was sitting in the front row, cried.

Judge Michael L. D’Amico scheduled sentencing for Nov. 21. Rodriguez faces a minimum of 15 years to life in prison and a maximum of 25 to life.

Assistant Attorney General Diane M. LaVallee, who prosecuted the case with Assistant Attorneys General Patricia Carrington and Cydney Kelly, praised the witnesses for coming forward to testify so many years after the slaying.

“Those were bad secrets to hold for such a long time, but they unburdened themselves and told the truth in court,” she said.

The prosecutor was referring to two of the defendant’s former girlfriends, who testified that Rodriguez told them he killed Patricia Rodriguez, a secret that one of them had kept until 2009 when she said she found Jesus and decided to come forward.

Another witness, who had seen the couple at a Lackawanna bar that night and later saw them get out of a car and go into the cemetery, also testified.

That witness had called Lackawanna police in 1979 to say he had information about the slaying but never heard back from them and did not pursue the matter until state police contacted him years later, during the cold case investigation.

LaVallee also praised Schneiderman for pursing the case and providing “peace and justice” to the victim’s family, including Patricia Rodriguez’s mother, who attended the weeklong trial every day with her son and other family members.

The prosecutor also cited the state police and Weber for pursuing the investigation for more than four years.

Defense plans to appeal

Defense attorney Paul J. Cambria said he will file an appeal.

“The case has very strong issues on appeal and most certainly will be appealed,” he said. “We were very prejudiced by the passage of 35 years since several key witnesses are now deceased. Cases this old are very difficult, especially when people have passed away who are important.”

He was referring to the two Lackawanna detectives who collected evidence from the cemetery and from the defendant’s apartment on Fernald Avenue back in 1979. He contended that their handling of the evidence may have tainted the 2009 DNA testing of items.

During their closing statements to the jury, Cambria and LaVallee focused on whether Rodriguez had a motive to kill his estranged wife.

Cambria said the evidence showed his client had no motive to kill Patricia Rodriguez. He told the jury that witnesses who saw them at Danny Boy’s bar in Lackawanna the night before the victim’s body was found testified that the couple were dancing, laughing and getting along.

“There was no bad blood between them that night,” he said.

The couple even had consensual sex, the attorney said, and there was no indication that Patricia Rodriguez suffered any forcible injury during sex.

“You need to have a motive to stab someone 108 times, and there is no evidence of that whatsoever,” Cambria said.

He dismissed testimony by a jailhouse informant who said Rodriguez told him that he killed the victim after she refused to kiss him and after he told her he wanted the money he gave her for child support because he felt it meant he was supporting her boyfriend.

He also questioned the testimony of one of the defendant’s former girlfriends, who said he told her that he killed Patricia Rodriguez after she made him angry.

“Where did that come from?” Cambria asked the jury. “Everybody said they were getting along.”

Allegations of neglect

LaVallee said that while the prosecution doesn’t have to prove a motive, it can be found in a defense exhibit – a document from Erie County Child Protective Services. The document shows that Patricia Rodriguez’s two children were removed from her home Feb. 23, 1979, during an investigation into allegations that they were being neglected.

But it also shows that a Family Court judge ordered them returned to their mother March 16, 1979.

“Less than one month later, she was butchered,” LaVallee told the jury.

LaVallee cited the testimony of two of the defendant’s former girlfriends, who said that he told them he killed Patricia Rodriguez and that he considered her a bad mother.

The prosecutor acknowledged that Patricia Rodriguez could have been a better mother, “but no one deserves to die for that.”

Donna Williams, who was 19, pregnant and living with Michael Rodriguez at the time of the killing, testified that he called her at her mother’s house around 3 or 4 the morning of the murder and told her to come home because he had just killed his wife in the cemetery. She said he later told her that he killed her because she made him angry and that he had thrown away the knife in a creek behind their apartment.

When she got to their apartment, she said, he was passed out on the bed. She said she found blood in the bathroom and on his brown leather jacket and cleaned it up.

But she mentioned none of that in her statement to Lackawanna police, telling them he came home, said he had been out with friends and went to bed.

Cambria said Williams’ testimony made no sense, questioning why she didn’t wake him when she returned home from her mother’s following his phone call and ask him right away what was going on. Instead, she started cleaning the bathroom.

He also attacked her credibility, saying she gave two inconsistent statements, one to Lackawanna police in 1979 and another to state police in 2009 about Rodriguez’s alleged admission that he killed his wife.

LaVallee mentioned the testimony of another former girlfriend, Mary Lou Dotegay, that after she started dating Rodriguez in 1983, he became violent, beating her and threatening to kill her “like I killed my children’s mother.”

Dotegay also testified that the defendant told her he killed his wife because he didn’t like the way she was raising their children and didn’t like her boyfriend, who used drugs and had a criminal record.

LaVallee also noted the testimony of Richard Brady, who said the defendant told him last winter at the Erie County Holding Center that he pulled out a knife and attacked his wife after she refused to kiss him and return his money.

Cambria questioned both those witnesses’ motives for testifying against his client.

Couple was seen at cemetery

Also at issue was the testimony of Edward J. Murphy Jr., who said he saw the Rodriguezes at Danny Boy’s that night and later saw them get out of a car on Dorrance Avenue and go into Holy Cross Cemetery. He said he was 300 to 400 feet away from them, couldn’t see their faces and was “buzzed” after he had four or five tea and vodkas at the bar.

Cambria questioned the reliability of the identification under those circumstances. LaVallee said the finding of Patricia Rodriguez’s body in the cemetery shows Murphy was correct about seeing her enter the cemetery.

LaVallee told the jury that DNA testing in 2009 showed Patricia Rodriguez’s blood on the lining of the jacket the defendant was wearing that night.

Cambria said the DNA was unreliable because the testing was conducted 30 years after the jacket was seized as evidence and because authorities might have mixed the jacket with the victim’s bloody clothing.

email: jstaas@buffnews.com