LOCKPORT - A man convicted of a 2003 murder in Niagara Falls admitted this week that he committed the crime, but he continued to seek a new trial because his attorney advised him not to plead guilty.
Norman J. Pryor said that at the start of his October 2004 trial, he was offered a plea deal that would have brought him only five years in prison.
He testified Thursday in a Niagara County Court hearing that he rejected it on the advice of attorney James M. Perry, who allegedly told him that the prosecution's witnesses were not credible and he would be acquitted.
He wasn't. A jury found Pryor guilty of second-degree murder and he's now serving a sentence of 20 years to life in prison.
Perry testified that in his 38-year legal career, "I never guaranteed a defendant that they would be acquitted of any charge."
Pryor, now 34, was convicted in an October 2004 trial of killing Joshua Hunt, 19, of Niagara Falls, in a melee July 6, 2003, outside the former Dante's Ristorante at Pine Avenue and 29th Street in the Falls.
A jailhouse informant testified that Pryor told him he killed Hunt because Hunt had fatally shot another man who owed Pryor $800 - a killing that harmed Pryor's chances of recovering the money.
Hunt's brother and three women were wounded in the gun battle.
Pryor testified at his trial and denied committing the crime, but he backed off that during his hearing on canceling the verdict.
Under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Thomas H. Brandt, Pryor said he was lying when he told the jury he didn't shoot Hunt.
"Why would I go to trial after turning down the plea and then say I committed the crime? You have to say the opposite, right?" Pryor asked.
He claimed that Perry in effect forced him to lie by advising him to reject the plea offer and then putting him on the stand. Pryor said Perry made him testify with no preparation; Perry said it was Pryor's choice to take the stand.
Pryor said that Perry was concerned that the five-year sentence offer wouldn't stick because of Pryor's two prior felony convictions, for robbery and weapons possession. The defendant said Perry was afraid the sentence would be enhanced because of Pryor's possible status as a persistent felon.
Brandt said that would not have happened. He argued, "If a judge can't honor a [sentencing] commitment, the law says the defendant goes back to the status quo . It was the defendant's choice and he's now serving out the consequences."
Pryor said he pleaded guilty in his other felony cases and he would have admitted to the Hunt killing, too.
"He was forced into an awkward situation where he did something he wouldn't normally do," argued Pryor's current attorney, Dominic Saraceno.
County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas said she will rule in a few weeks on Pryor's effort to overturn the jury verdict. The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court rejected Pryor's first appeal in 2008.