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Finnerty, a voice for vulnerable victims, forced out of DA office

Laura Cummings was a mentally disabled woman who was beaten, scalded and shackled to a chair before being killed in her home.

Bianca Cartagena was an 8-year-old girl who suffered a tortured death, asphyxiated.

And Abdi Mohamud was just 10 years old when he was beaten to death, struck some 70 times.

All three were among Erie County’s most vulnerable homicide victims in recent years.

And all three of their killers are now serving long prison terms. thanks largely Thomas M. Finnerty, a longtime assistant district attorney.

Finnerty leaves his post as Senior Litigation Counsel on Friday, forced out by incoming District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr., who is assembling his own leadership team.

“I’m disappointed, but I’m not bitter,” Finnerty said in a lengthy interview inside a downtown coffee shop. “It’s John’s office, and he certainly can operate it in any way he deems appropriate.”

Finnerty says he doesn’t know the reason he was asked to resign. He also says he’s not entitled to a reason.

But he added: “I truly wish John and the office I have loved for 23 years the best of success.”

Flynn didn't elaborate on his reasons for the change but wished Finnerty well in the future.

"I thank Mr. Finnerty for his service with the Erie County District Attorney's Office and wish him well in his future endeavors," Flynn told the News.

Finnerty earned a reputation as a top prosecutor who appreciates the importance of the entire trial process, from investigation and jury selection to witness questioning and summation. That’s why he often drew the assignment of prosecuting some of the office’s most difficult and brutal homicides.

“Tom is one of the most naturally talented trial lawyers I have ever seen,” said State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita III, his former boss. “He understands the trial dynamic like few others do. It’s a very limited club.”

Finnerty specialized in prosecuting some of the most defenseless killings.

“Overall, what I’m most proud of is that many of my murder cases involved the most vulnerable people in society – the young, the elderly and the disabled – and I was able to be their voice,” he said. “I think I’ve been able to open my heart to these victims and their families, and I think the jurors could see someone totally committed to being the voice for those who no longer could speak for themselves.”

Since word of Finnerty’s departure circulated through Buffalo’s legal community, State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang and other judges hailed Finnerty. They praised him for his passion in representing such victims, bonding with their families and connecting with jurors.

Finnerty has been known to shed a tear or two, even in the courtroom.

“The passion I bring, it’s not manufactured. It’s real,” he said. “The jurors can see the difference between manufactured and genuine passion. I think you have to appeal to their minds and their hearts simultaneously.”

That passion can be seen in his recounting some details from those three homicides involving vulnerable victims.

Finnerty has trouble discussing the killing of the mentally disabled Cummings without stopping to control his emotions.

“Laura Cummings was tied to a chair for the last two years with a hood over her head, subjected to daily physical and sexual abuse,” he said. “I would say that’s the worst, the most barbarian. When I read the case file, I had to get up and close the door because I was overcome with emotion.

“What happened to her is beyond our ability to comprehend, that all this suffering could be inflicted on a single soul,” Finnerty added. “They did so much to her, she wasn’t even a human being in the eyes of her mother and brother.”

Some of these brutal homicides also were tough to prosecute, plagued by a lack of physical evidence or a question of the killer’s state of mind.

“These cases have dealt with a deeper pathology, understanding the ‘why,’ ” he said. “I’ve had a lot of cases where the ‘why’ is impossible, because the actions were beyond the pale.”

The toughest of those cases to prove may have been the asphyxiation of Bianca Cartagena by her mother. Finnerty and fellow prosecutor Kristin A. St. Mary had to untangle seemingly disconnected and circumstantial facts before turning them into a persuasive prosecution. He also is proud of the 2008 conviction of Leon “Rusty” Chatt in a cold-case killing from 1974.

A Buffalo native who grew up in North Rose, between Rochester and Syracuse, Finnerty graduated from Siena College and Albany Law School in 1992. Then-Erie County District Attorney Kevin M. Dillon hired him in 1993.

“He was a great man, and I will be forever indebted to him,” the 50-year-old Finnerty said of Dillon, who died in January.

As a lifelong Republican, Finnerty has served under four Democratic district attorneys: Dillon, Frank J. Clark, Sedita and Michael J. Flaherty Jr. (acting).

Besides Finnerty’s success at trial, Sedita said the prosecutor’s greatest legacy was in mentoring younger assistant district attorneys.

Asked to list his main strengths, Finnerty cited his extensive, exhaustive preparation that helped him, especially in jury selection, summations and cross-examinations of defendants and expert witnesses.

His weaknesses?

Some might cite his being overly emotional.

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