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Court officials stunned by pending release of man convicted in 1988 rape and murder of child

The crime was beyond horrible. A 21-year-old man playing hide-and-seek with a group of children on Squaw Island somehow isolated a 9-year-old girl, raped her, sodomized her and, when the child screamed out during the assault, he stabbed her six times and cut her throat.

A year after he killed Melody Wilson, Thomas Kennedy was convicted of second-degree murder and sodomy, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

That was in 1988. Now he is being released.

The news stunned people in the local court system who know about Kennedy’s case.

The Parole Board of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) issued a determination May 5 that Kennedy should be freed and notified the District Attorney’s Office – a notification that one prosecutor says came only after the decision was made.

Once it was confirmed, and reconfirmed, that Kennedy was indeed being released, a hearing was scheduled in Erie County Court to assign Kennedy’s status as a registered sex offender. It was held Thursday afternoon.

Kennedy, who is imprisoned in Clinton Correctional Facility, did not show up, but instead sent a letter to Judge Kenneth F. Case saying, “I don’t wish to appear in court for this hearing. I am aware I will be classified a Level 3 sex offender. ...”

Level 3 is the highest level, used for the most dangerous people who are considered most likely to reoffend.

After making the classification official, Case added one more thing.

“Just so the record’s clear, I have nothing to do with his release, or the timing of his release. That’s entirely up to the Department of Corrections,” the judge said.

Prosecutor Ryan Haggerty, who represented the DA’s Office on the matter, also was frustrated by the Parole Board’s decision, and by the fact that, if Kennedy was to be released from prison, he was not transferred to indefinite civil commitment. Haggerty said after the hearing that he could find no evidence that the DA’s Office had been contacted about Kennedy’s parole eligibility prior to receiving notice of his pending release.

Prosecutors would have aggressively opposed it, he said.

Contacted after the hearing, a spokesman for the DOC said that the Parole Board does not determine whether inmates should be directed toward civil commitment, and said those decisions were up to the state Attorney General’s Office.

When contacted about Kennedy’s release Thursday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office said she could not comment on the case.

Haggerty said he also had contacted the AG’s Office about its decision not to intervene in Kennedy’s case, but could not get a definitive answer. He said he was directed to the state Office of Mental Health.

New York’s Mental Hygiene Law provides that convicted violent sex offenders can be held beyond their criminal sentences for treatment and supervision, provided they meet certain conditions. Haggerty and others familiar with Kennedy’s crime say those conditions easily apply to this crime.

Kennedy’s defense at his 1988 trial was that he was insane. His lawyers said at the time that Kennedy should be placed in a secure mental health facility instead of being sentenced to state prison.

Kennedy’s attorneys argued that he suffered a “psychotic episode” when he murdered Melody. They pointed out he had a low IQ and limited impulse control.

Kennedy’s mother testified at his trial that her son, who she called a “wimp” and “a sissy,” was institutionalized repeatedly between the ages of 5 to 17 in homes for troubled youngsters. He committed his first sex offense when he was 15 and was sent to a reformatory at age 17 when he was found with a knife in a teacher’s car. The mother said he lied, stole and played with matches, and she threw him out of her house out of fear he would burn it down.

She was testifying for the defense.

In the end, the judge ruled that, despite his problems, Kennedy was aware of his actions when he killed the child and he knew that what he did was wrong. Nevertheless, mental health experts for both sides agreed that Kennedy suffers from borderline personality disorder and has an antisocial personality.

None of that came up during the brief hearing Thursday afternoon.

The sex offender classification was the last step before Kennedy could be freed. Because his sentence was 25 years to life, he will remain on parole for the remainder of his sentence – as long as he lives.

Kennedy, who is now 50, will be required to meet several conditions before being released on parole, according to Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesman Thomas Mailey, including having a job and/or enrollment in an academic or vocational program.

He also will have a curfew, his internet activities will be curbed and he will be required to participate in violence and substance abuse counseling. Kennedy will be barred from consuming alcohol and from accessing pornography or sexual performance drugs. And, he will be required to undergo periodic polygraph tests, according to the DOCCS.