A woman in prison for more than 20 years is hoping a judge's ruling will uncover new DNA evidence about the 1995 murder of an 82-year-old Amherst widow and lead to her being freed.
In a ruling obtained Friday by The Buffalo News, a judge directed law enforcement authorities to inspect evidence from a Longmeadow Road apartment where Louise Cicelsky was robbed, stabbed and beaten.
The ruling from State Supreme Court Judge M. William Boller – which is the result of a request made by two lawyers associated with the Innocence Project – requires law enforcement officials to re-examine evidence and try to determine whose DNA was present at the murder scene.
The New York City-based organization represents Renay Lynch, 61, a former Buffalo prostitute who was convicted of murder and robbery in the case after a 1998 jury trial. Lynch has been in prison ever since, serving a sentence of 25 years to life. She claims that she was wrongly convicted after Amherst police detectives pressured her into making a "false confession" to the crimes. Police have denied those allegations.
Lynch's lawyers, Jane Fisher-Byrialsen and Susan Friedman, said they hope Boller's order will enable investigators to uncover evidence that could point to another person as the killer and – eventually – help Lynch to get her conviction vacated.
"I was moved to tears by the judge's order," Fisher-Byrialsen told The News on Friday. "We're very happy on behalf of Renay. We certainly believe this was the right thing for the judge to do. The new DNA evidence could someday lead to her conviction being vacated. This is Step 1 in the process."
District Attorney John J. Flynn said he is "not upset" by the judge's ruling. He said his office and the Amherst Police will "go where the evidence leads us."
"I was not in office when Renay Lynch was prosecuted, but from all the evidence and information I have seen, she was justly convicted of being an accomplice in this case," Flynn said. "We would not hesitate in pursuing charges against another individual if that is where the DNA evidence leads us."
The DA's office fought against the request of defense attorneys for a new DNA evaluation of the evidence. Boller listened to legal arguments on the case in January. He recently issued a brief order finding that a DNA re-examination of physical evidence from the murder scene is "warranted" by the law and the circumstances of the case.
The items that will be tested for DNA evidence include the following:
- A fingernail clipping from the victim.
- Blood swabs from the kitchen floor, a living room carpet, a microwave table, a refrigerator, a dining room wall, a bedroom dresser drawer and a purse found in a bedroom.
- A bloody fingerprint found on a dresser drawer. This print also will be checked against state and federal fingerprint databases.
- Fifteen hairs found at the murder scene – including some that were found on the victim's body.
Flynn told The News in January – and again on Friday – that he does not expect Lynch's DNA to turn up in the murder scene evidence.
He said he opposed the defense request for new DNA evidence because he strongly believes Lynch was an accomplice to the crime. But Flynn added that investigators do not believe that Lynch is the person who beat and repeatedly stabbed Cicelsky to death. Police said the victim – who stood just 4-foot-7 – was stabbed in the neck at least eight times.
Cicelsky was a landlord who owned a number of rental properties in Buffalo and the suburbs, Flynn said. Lynch was one of her tenants, and police believe Lynch went to Cicelsky's apartment on the pretense that she wanted to discuss an issue about her rent, the DA said.
"We believe that Lynch was involved in the planning of the crime, and that she went into the apartment and left the door unlocked for her accomplice to come inside," Flynn said. "We do not believe that Lynch touched the victim or anything in the apartment. We do not expect her DNA to be found there. She was prosecuted and convicted as an accomplice to the crime."
Amherst police investigated a number of possible suspects – including a man identified by Lynch as the killer – but never arrested anyone else in the case, Flynn said.
According to police, detectives began to investigate Lynch within hours of the murder, after Lynch called Cicelsky's apartment and falsely told a police captain that she was Cicelsky's niece. Amherst detectives said they interviewed Lynch repeatedly over the next 18 months.
In November 1996, after Lynch was arrested in connection with the theft of a fur coat, Lynch told them that she had been involved in the Cicelsky robbery with a man named Kareem Walker, police said.
According to evidence presented at the 1998 trial, Lynch gave police a statement that she had allowed Walker into the apartment. Police said Lynch told them that Walker punched Cicelsky and knocked her unconscious after Cicelsky demanded to know what he was doing in her home.
After taking money from the victim's bedroom, Walker stabbed Cicelsky repeatedly in the neck, police testified that Lynch told them.
Lynch testified at her trial that the statement she gave police was false. She said she wasn’t involved in the robbery with Walker or anyone else.
Her lawyers contend that Lynch was severely addicted to drugs when she made her "false confession." They also contend that she was bullied, pressured and misled by a detective.
According to Innocence Project attorneys, false confessions are fairly common in the criminal justice system. The organization told The News that more than 350 defendants throughout the United States have been freed from prisons because of new DNA evidence, dating back to the 1990s. According to the Innocence Project, defendants gave false confessions in more than one-quarter of those cases.
Friedman works directly for the Innocence Project, while Fisher-Byrialsen is an attorney in private practice working with the Innocence Project on this case.
Flynn said he and Donna A. Milling, his chief appeals attorney, have found no proof that Lynch was ever pressured into making any false statements.
But the DA added that he is not ruling out the possibility that the evidence could someday result in Lynch's conviction being vacated or someone else being charged with the murder.
"Down the road, depending on what the new DNA evidence shows, I would be willing to entertain any legal arguments that the defense wants to put forward … No one has been ruled out as a suspect," Flynn said.
Flynn and Fisher-Byrialsen both said it could take months for the new DNA evidence to come in, but Flynn added that he will do all he can to "expedite" the effort.
Cicelsky's body was found on May 19, 1995. Her murder upset residents of a normally peaceful neighborhood, not far from the intersection of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Longmeadow Road.
After the murder, friends described Cicelsky as an energetic senior citizen who attended Jewish services almost every day, regularly swam at a health club, participated in a bowling league and volunteered in a Kosher Meals on Wheels program.
"We'd still like to find out who else was involved in the killing of this woman," Flynn said. "Absolutely."