ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. David Paterson commuted the sentence of a black man imprisoned for the racially charged shooting death of a white teenager on Long Island, a decision in the final days of his administration that infuriated the lawyer who prosecuted the case.
Paterson said the five months John Harris White has served was enough time for the emotion-fueled 2006 shooting death of Daniel Cicciaro, 17. Paterson said everybody connected with the case had suffered enough, and White was released last Thursday.
White teenagers were feuding with John White’s 19-year-old son when they went by the carload to their home in August 2006. White was convicted of manslaughter for shooting one of the teenagers in what he referred to as a lynch mob.
A judge sentenced White to two to four years in prison, a fraction of the maximum, exactly four years ago Thursday. He finally went to prison in July this year after his appeals were rejected.
“He is happy to be spending this very special Christmas with his family,” said White’s lawyer, Paul Gianelli. He wouldn’t say whether White had sought a pardon.
“The only thing that matters right now is his personal liberty and his ability to rejoin his family,” Gianelli said. “The case is finished. It’s over and done with.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota blasted Paterson for the decision.
“I strongly believe the governor should have had the decency and the compassion to at least contact the victim’s family to allow them to be heard before commuting the defendant’s sentence,” Spota said.
Spota said a court, upheld by an appellate court, agreed that a reasonable person wouldn’t have believed deadly force was needed that hot summer night.
In a courtroom secured by 18 police officers because of the racial tensions, White testified that he was trying to protect his family when the white teenagers turned up at his house. He claimed his pistol fired accidentally when Cicciaro lunged for it.
The victim had a blood-alcohol reading above the legal limit for driving and was just 3 inches from the pistol when he was shot.
White had said his son, Aaron, woke him around 11 p.m. to say teens he had argued with at a party were headed to the Whites’ house in Miller Place, a predominantly white community on eastern Long Island.
The younger White had earlier complied with a request to leave the beer bash after he was suspected of posting online threats against a teenage girl at the party. The story of the threats turned out to be bogus, but when Cicciaro and others heard about what happened, they headed for Miller Place, making cell phone calls to Aaron White.
John White testified that he grew up in Brooklyn hearing stories about how the Ku Klux Klan had torched his grandfather’s business in Alabama in the 1920s. He said he feared a similar attack was about to happen.
White was sentenced to more time in prison for owning an illegal weapon than for the killing. He got two years for possession of the gun, and 1 1/3 to four years for manslaughter, to be served at the same time.
In prison since July 9, records show one misbehavior report, for smoking inside, which didn’t affect White’s sentence.
“Our society strives to be just, but the pursuit of justice is a difficult and arduous endeavor,” Paterson, who is black, said in the commutation, one of his last acts in office.
“While the incident and Mr. White’s trial engendered much controversy and comment, and varying assessments of justice were perceived, its most common feature was heartbreak,” Paterson said. “My decision today may be an affront to some and a joy to others, but my objective is only to seek to ameliorate the profound suffering that occurred as a result of this tragic event.”
State workers contacted the victim’s mother Thursday morning, corrections spokesman Linda Foglia said. Two phone numbers for a Daniel Cicciaro, the name of the victim’s father, on Long Island were out of service when The Associated Press called them Thursday.
“This is an inspiring example of an elected official using commutation powers for good,” said Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said that he hoped the families would move toward healing and that the governor “showed great courage and fairness.”
Sharpton had led a rally in Riverhead, the county seat, complaining that none of the teenagers who arrived at White’s house was prosecuted. The district attorney’s office said the White family refused to cooperate with a police investigation.
The spokesman said a canvass of the neighborhood found no evidence or witnesses to corroborate allegations made by White’s attorneys.
Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela in New York City contributed to this report.