Perhaps the successful murder prosecution of Michael Rodriguez will serve as an object lesson for Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III to go forward with cases where the evidence is strong, but not airtight.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman understood as much, which is why his office deserves credit for taking on the 35-year-old cold case when the local prosecutor would not.
The body of Patricia Rodriguez, a 21-year-old mother of two children, was found stabbed more than a hundred times in 1979 in Lackawanna’s Holy Cross Cemetery. The case languished for decades. In 2009 state police, at the request of Lackawanna Police Chief James L. Michel Jr., reopened the case. Even though armed with strong new evidence, state police were unable to persuade the district attorney to charge the suspect. Police then turned to the Attorney General’s Office.
There are a number of ironies wrapped in the cold case that Sedita wouldn’t touch, not the least of which is that the prosecution was led by Assistant Attorney General Diane LaVallee, a Republican, who lost to Sedita, a Democrat, in his first election for district attorney in 2008.
Sedita’s predecessors as district attorney – Edward C. Cosgrove, Kevin M. Dillon and Frank J. Clark – all declined to press charges against Rodriguez, the victim’s estranged husband. But technology – including DNA evidence – has advanced since their tenures.
Fast-forward to the present and the determination of Christopher S. Weber, a senior investigator for the state police, to solve a brutal murder.
But even the new evidence wasn’t enough to persuade Sedita, who offered a variety of reasons for not taking on the case. He has been often criticized for requiring investigators to amass an overwhelming amount of evidence before moving forward. While this is the first case taken over by the state, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. has prosecuted Buffalo gang members involved in murders and other gang-related crimes. In the process, he has won dozens of convictions in U.S. District Court.
How much evidence is enough is a question prosecutors weigh in every case. Sedita’s demand for more and more evidence rewards him with a glittering 98 percent rate of conviction, and, as he says, reduces the chance of a wrongful conviction. However, the argument falls flat when getting his office to take action seems to require the kind of ironclad case that shows up only in television dramas.
His office did successfully prosecute Candace Cartagena in the murder of her 8-year-old daughter in Amherst four years ago, but only after strenuous persuasion by police and the girl’s family.
Sedita seems to have had an epiphany over his refusal to prosecute: “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.”
We hope this admission represents a small course correction by Sedita.