ALBANY—The second degree murder conviction of William Demagall has been reversed by a state appellate court. The decision, which faults rulings by County Court Judge Paul Czajka, was issued Thursday, April 2.
The decision not only overturns the conviction but also requires Mr. Demagall to have a new trial before a different judge.
On December 8, 2006 a Columbia County Court jury convicted Mr. Demagall, then 23, of stabbing and bludgeoning to death George Mancini in February of that year. Mr. Mancini, 56, a retired schoolteacher, was murdered at his home on Breezy Hill Road, just off Route 23 in Hillsdale.
Mr. Demagall of Southfield, Mass., escaped from the psychiatric ward at the Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Mass., less than two days before the crime. The jury found that he repeatedly stabbed Mr. Mancini, beat him with a glass paperweight stuffed in a sock, then set his body on fire.
In their summary of the initial case the state Supreme Court Appellate Division judges wrote that Mr. Demagall “claimed to have received a vision from God directing him to kill the victim, a person with whom he had a brief encounter a couple of weeks earlier and whom he believed provided drugs to minors.”
Judge Czajka, who presided over the trial, imposed the maximum sentence of 25 years to life March 21, 2007.
Defense attorney Richard Mott, who represented Mr. Demagall and handled the appeal, said he was “not surprised” by the reversal.
The ruling focuses on the report of Stuart Kleinman, a forensic psychiatrist and the first expert engaged by the prosecution before trial. Dr. Kleinman’s conclusions were used to support a proposed plea deal, with the prosecution and the defense agreeing that Mr. Demagall would plead that he was not responsible for the crime “by reason of mental disease or defect.”
But in pre-trial proceedings, Judge Czajka rejected the plea deal because he said Dr. Kleinman provided “insufficient evidence” to support it. The judge based his ruling on Dr. Kleinman’s observation that the defendant knew killing Mr. Mancini was illegal and wrong.
The appellate panel called Judge Czajka’s ruling on Dr. Kleinman’s report a “misapprehension of the law,” and said that it “contributed to a prejudicial error at trial regarding defendant’s efforts to comment on the failure of [the prosecution] to produce Kleinman at trial.”
At the trial Mr. Mott planned to point out in his summation that the prosecution’s expert witness, Dr. Alan Tuckman, was actually the prosecution’s second expert to examine Mr. Demagall. But Judge Czajka did not permit him to tell that to the jury.
“The court reiterated its early (incorrect) determination that Kleinman’s opinion was premised upon a wrong application of the law regarding insanity. Defense counsel also requested a missing witness charge [to the jury], which the County Court denied,” wrote the appellate court.
“The failure of the People to produce Kleinman met the preconditions for a missing witness charge,” said the appellate judges.
Though he had not yet been able to speak to his client, who is at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, Mr. Mott said Thursday evening that he had relayed the news to Mr. Demagall’s family. “They were obviously elated that the conviction had been vacated and he will get a new trial,” Mr. Mott said.
Mr. Mancini’s daughter, Elysia Mancini-Duerr, said in an email to The Columbia Paper that she became “hysterically upset” when she heard the news of the decision. “The only thing I can think about right now is the fact I will probably not be emotionally able to sit through a trial again. I barely survived the first trial.”
Columbia County District Attorney Beth Cozzolino could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.