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The Ronald Epps case: Thirty-five years or life in prison?

His court-appointed defense attorney says Ronald “Todd” Epps was never convicted of murder, and that he should serve no more than 35 years in federal prison for insurance fraud, drug-trafficking, criminal possession of a firearm and other crimes.

Federal prosecutors call Epps a cold-blooded killer who murdered his fiancee, Angela Moss, for $100,000 in life insurance money and should spend the rest of his life behind bars.

The decision on Epps’ fate rests with U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, who has twice postponed the sentencing and now plans to sentence Epps on Oct. 12.

It’s a tricky and unusual decision for Arcara, who has to decide whether Epps should be punished as a murderer, even though he’s never actually faced trial for murder.

After a jury trial in August 2015, Epps, now 48, of Amherst, was convicted of 10 felony charges, including insurance fraud. Federal prosecutors argued during the trial that Epps shot and killed Moss in August 2009 so he could collect $100,000 on her life insurance policy.

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According to federal prosecutors Melissa A. Marangola and Joel L. Violanti, the trial evidence clearly proved that Moss murdered his fiancee after she finished her shift as a nursing aide in an Orchard Park nursing home.

“The defendant carefully planned the murder of Angela Moss and executed her as she left work by shooting her in the back of her head,” Marangola said in court papers, arguing for a sentence of life imprisonment. “The trial established that, based on the lack of defensive wounds, there was no struggle or conflict between the defendant and Angela Moss before she was shot in the head. The defendant exploited the fact that Angela Moss trusted him and used their relationship to lure her to a desolate, dark road and kill her.”

Violanti said federal sentencing guidelines – which are only advisory – suggest that Arcara should sentence Epps to 120 years in prison. In essence, Violanti said, that would be a life sentence. In light of the viciousness of the slaying, Epps’ lack of remorse and the many other crimes he has committed, federal prosecutors have asked Arcara to sentence Epps to life.

Defense attorney Cheryl Meyers Buth takes a different position, asking the judge to send Epps to prison for no more than 35 years. She argues that the proof that Epps killed Moss was “wholly circumstantial.”

“The Defense argued that someone other than Mr. Epps killed the victim,” Buth said in court papers arguing against a life sentence. “In voting to convict, the jury believed Mr. Epps had a role in causing her death. Although the government argued that Mr. Epps intentionally shot Ms. Moss, the jury was not required to make that finding to convict … For example, the jury could have convicted if it found they got into an argument and the gun accidentally went off.”

Buth said she believes the murder of Moss may have been linked to a dispute involving a Buffalo motorcycle gang.

She said an associate of the biker gang, who knew Moss, was murdered two nights before Moss was killed. Law enforcement officials said they do not believe the biker dispute had any connection to Moss’ death.

Orchard Park police who investigated Moss’ death called the killing “an execution.” They said the evidence shows that Epps shot his 39-year-old fiancee and left her body along California Road, near the nursing home where she had cared for elderly patients.

Why was an alleged murderer targeted for an insurance fraud prosecution?

Murder is a state crime, and the county’s top prosecutor at the time – former Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita III, who has since been elevated to a state judgeship – said he did not feel there was sufficient evidence for a murder prosecution. Orchard Park police then asked U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. to look at the case, and he decided to prosecute Epps for insurance fraud, drug-dealing and other federal crimes.

Hochul, who was out of town and could not be reached on Friday, called Epps “a sinister individual” after his conviction last year.

In papers filed with Arcara, Marangola called Moss “a completely innocent victim” who was loved by “family, friends and co-workers.”

Epps “executed her for money, plain and simple,” Marangola told the judge. “In the days following her murder, he showed absolutely no remorse. He immediately attempted to collect the insurance proceeds, retrieve Angela Moss’ car from her mother, Mary Moss, and then moved his mistress … into the residence he previously shared with Angela Moss. The defendant moved on with his life immediately, as if Angela Moss never existed.”

Meanwhile, she said, Moss’ family and friends have been “devastated” by her murder.

When Epps met with an insurance agent to discuss collection of the $100,000, Epps said he wanted the money in a “cash payout in order to avoid paying his child support arrears,” Marangola said.

In addition to insurance fraud, federal jurors convicted Epps, formerly of Cascade Drive in Amherst, of nine other criminal counts, including dealing cocaine and marijuana, criminal possession of guns, and arson.

Before any of that happened, Marangola said, Epps was already on probation because of a long list of previous criminal convictions, including several drug-related convictions, a firearms conviction and an assault “where the defendant shot an individual in the chest with a shotgun.”

“This pattern of criminal conduct throughout his entire adult life and committing this offense while on probation demonstrates a blatant disregard for the law,” Marangola said.

On May 19, Arcara turned down Buth’s request for a new trial for Epps. The judge initially scheduled sentencing for June 28, then delayed it until Friday. Then, on Friday, he delayed it a second time until Oct. 12, so both sides can present further written arguments about the sentencing dispute.

Buth told the judge that, at Epps’ age, a sentence of 35 years is “in effect, a life sentence.”

“As the Court will recall, the Erie County District Attorney’s Office declined prosecution of this case,” Buth told the judge. “Subsequently, the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged the Defendant … with wire fraud, not murder.”

And even if Sedita’s office had convicted Epps of a state murder charge, “the maximum sentence would be 25 years to life,” Buth wrote. “That is a sentence that would be less than the mandatory 35 years that the Court must impose here.”

Marangola said there are “no words” to describe the pain that Epps has caused for Moss’ family.

“A mother should never have to bury her child, but to do so under these circumstances is unimaginable,” she told the judge.

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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