Ex-cop freed after 11 years in prison

September 19, 2008 3:49:04 PM PDT
The murder trial of the white policeman who shot and killed a black man after a fight over a parking space was so highly charged that chairs in the gallery were chained together so they couldn't be thrown after the verdict.Now the 12-year-old case is returning to an appeals court after a Westchester County judge overturned the conviction and the district attorney appealed. The former New York City cop, Richard D. DiGuglielmo, was freed Friday afternoon after 11 years in prison.

The case stems from Oct. 23, 1996, when Charles Campbell, a 37-year-old sanitation worker, parked at the DiGuglielmo family's deli in Dobbs Ferry, about 20 miles north of New York City, and went across the street to a pizzeria.

When DiGuglielmo's father plastered a "no parking" sticker on his Corvette, Campbell scuffled with the father, the off-duty officer and a brother-in-law.

Campbell took a baseball bat from the trunk of his car and began hitting the father. DiGuglielmo got a gun from the deli and shot Campbell as he held the bat.

A key issue at the trial was whether Campbell posed sufficient danger to the elder DiGuglielmo to warrant his shooting. Judge Rory Bellantoni ruled Thursday that a vacillating eyewitness was unlawfully pressured into giving testimony favorable to the prosecution on that question.

He also noted that DiGuglielmo was convicted of shooting Campbell with "depraved indifference," rather than with intent, and that a higher court has since ruled that depraved indifference should not apply in cases like DiGuglielmo's. He suggested the ruling should apply retroactively.

DiGuglielmo's mother, Rosemarie, said Friday, "I just thank God that this judge came through. He's like a savior to me." Her son was simply saving his father's life when he shot Campbell, she said.

But Randolph McLaughlin, a lawyer for Campbell's family, which won $4.5 million in a civil suit, said the judge was swayed by sympathy for the family.

"This defendant was released not because the law dictated it but because the judge wanted it. This judge's emotion overcame his judgment. When a more rational, neutral judge looks at this matter he will affirm the conviction."

McLaughlin said there would be protests over the ruling next Friday and on the anniversary of the shooting. He quoted Campbell's son Vaughn as saying his father "did not deserve to be shot down like a dog in the street."

District Attorney Janet DiFiore said she was looking forward to arguing the case in the state Appellate Division. Judge Bellantoni's decision, she said, "is wrong on the facts and wrong on the law."

Although race was barely mentioned at the trial, the district attorney at the time, Jeanine Pirro, called the killing a bias crime. One witness said DiGuglielmo shouted a racial epithet at Campbell. Whites sat on one side of the courtroom, blacks on the other.

Campbell's family and friends and many other blacks, occasionally joined by the Rev. Al Sharpton, held weekly rallies at the deli. Sharpton's office said Friday he was "outraged" and would talk about the case Saturday.

When he took the stand, DiGuglielmo wept and said he was forced to shoot Campbell for fear Campbell would kill his father. He said he had no time to warn Campbell before shooting.

His father and brother-in-law were acquitted of assault.

DiGuglielmo, sentenced to 20 years, exhausted his appeals but won a hearing from Bellantoni on the grounds of new evidence.

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