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Sedita: ‘I was wrong’ not to prosecute Rodriguez

Michael Rodriguez was not the only loser Friday when he was convicted of murdering his estranged wife in a cold case dating back 35 years.

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III also took a hit for his refusal to prosecute the case. And Sedita is the first to agree.

“I have a couple sentiments about the verdict,” Sedita said Saturday. “I made a judgment about the case, and I have to say I’ve never been so happy to say that I was wrong about something. I’m kind of angry at myself in retrospect for having made the wrong judgment.

“The state attorney general made the correct judgment on the case, and Diane LaVallee and her team obviously tried a terrific case. At the end of the day, a prosecutor was able to obtain justice,” Sedita said in reflecting on his decision not to prosecute the 60-year-old Rodriguez.

State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, in an unprecedented move for a New York State attorney general, agreed to prosecute Rodriguez after state police turned up new evidence and Sedita refused to take the case.

Schneiderman’s office said it could find no other instance of an attorney general prosecuting a murder case in New York.

Patricia Rodriguez, the estranged spouse and 21-year-old mother of two children, was found stabbed more than 100 times in a Lackawanna cemetery on Good Friday in 1979.

“This was a truly despicable crime,” Schneiderman said Saturday. “I applaud the State Police for never giving up on this investigation. From the moment they asked us to look at it, I was committed to doing everything we could to bring peace, justice and a measure of closure to Patti’s loved ones.”

Even though Schneiderman thanked Sedita for helping to prosecute Rodriguez, the district attorney has been the target of many area police who have accused him of placing unrealistic demands on them to provide an avalanche of evidence before taking a case to trial.

And the state’s prosecution of Rodriguez is not the first instance of a local police agency taking evidence to a different prosecutor after the district attorney disagreed with police on strength of the evidence.

The biggest example is U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., who has prosecuted Buffalo gang members involved in slayings and other gang-related crimes and won dozens of convictions in U.S. District Court.

“Frank Sedita wants pristine witnesses, but you’re not going to get them when there’s a gang war going on,” said retired Buffalo Homicide Detective Mark J. Lauber. “The witnesses don’t come from central casting. It’s gangsters shooting one another.”

Getting a conviction on a decades-old murder case, like the Rodriguez murder, was a remarkable feat accomplished by diligent detective work, Lauber said, as he credited the work of the state police who reopened the Rodriguez cold case in 2009 at the request of Lackawanna Police Chief James L. Michel Jr.

“With the new evidence, no one could understand why Sedita would not prosecute the case,” Lauber said. “What makes it even better is that Diane LaVallee was the lead prosecutor.”

LaVallee, a Republican, lost to Sedita, a Democrat, in his first election for district attorney in 2008, but succeeded in winning a courtroom victory in a case Sedita would not touch.

And while Lauber was willing to speak on the record because he no longer has to work with the District Attorney’s Office, other law enforcement officials expressed their continued dissatisfaction with Sedita, but declined to allow their names to be published – a point that Sedita has been highly critical of when responding to past stories about his refusal to handle certain cases.

Sedita, whose conviction rate for this year stands at 98 percent, says he refuses to indict individuals unless he is certain the evidence will withstand the scrutiny of a trial.

“A lot of my critics will say, ‘Why don’t we indict the case and roll the dice and see what happens? Maybe the guy will take a plea bargain.’ My philosophy, especially given the wrongful convictions that have occurred, is when I sign my name to an indictment, that is a solemn representation to the court and to the public that I believe that I can prove each and every count of the indictment beyond a reasonable doubt. Obviously, I am sometimes wrong about that. I am not infallible,” the DA said.

His office handles more than 35,000 cases a year, with a majority ending in plea deals. So far this year, there have been 78 trials, with 75 convictions and three acquittals.

And his office this year did successfully prosecute Candace Cartagena in the murder of her 8-year-old daughter in Amherst four years ago, after police and family complained that he was dragging his feet. She was sentenced to the maximum prison term of 25 years to life for intentionally suffocating her daughter, Bianca.

Attorney Paul J. Cambria, who represented Rodriguez, said Sedita’s decision not to prosecute Rodriguez was based on sound legal reasoning, and that ultimately, an appeal will lead to a reversal of the jury decision.

“I understand why he passed on the case. I think that part of his motivation had to do with legal issues in the case. There is a substantial possibility that the case will be reversed on appeal because of those legal issues which I raised,” Cambria said, referring to an “unjustified” period of time between when the slaying occurred and the trial, along with witnesses no longer alive.

Their testimony, Cambria said, could have provided vindicating evidence for Rodriguez.

“Throughout the trial, we were haunted by the age of the case and fact that a number of significant witnesses had died and there is nothing you can do about that,” Cambria said.

In explaining why he did not prosecute Rodriguez, Sedita said he and the top prosecutors in his office examined the evidence.

“It was the consensus of my prosecution team as well as me that the proof was insufficient because the key proof, the forensic evidence, was most likely inadmissible in court. That really was the key factor,” Sedita said. “But I want to make it absolutely clear to the public the final decision was mine. The buck stops with me.”

At the time Sedita and his staff reviewed the evidence that State Police Senior Investigator Christopher Weber obtained, the DA pointed out, a key piece of testimony did not exist. Not until Rodriguez was arrested and jailed in the Erie County Holding Center last year did that occur.

“The key proof that was absent was the admissions to the informant. That kind of pulled the whole thing together,” Sedita said of testimony from Richard Brady, an inmate who said Rodriguez told him last winter at the holding center that he pulled out a knife and attacked his wife after she refused to kiss him and return his money.

But the case was based on more than the informant’s testimony, authorities said, noting that the information came after the indictment, which was based on DNA and an eyewitness who placed Rodriguez at the crime scene.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com