The weekend death of Buffalo Police Officer Patricia A. Parete has been classified a homicide, but Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III has not decided whether to seek a first-degree murder charge against the man who shot her.
Varner Harris Jr. already is serving a sentence of 30 years to life for shooting Parete and her police partner.
That’s why Sedita believes reopening the case could be risky.
“I want Varner Harris to rot in jail, and I don’t want to jeopardize that,” Sedita said.
As loved ones and the community planned for today’s funeral for Parete, more than six years after she was shot on duty and paralyzed, the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled her death a homicide.
That means it’s up to Sedita to determine whether to seek a first-degree murder conviction, which could lead to a sentence of life without parole against Harris.
Now 25 years old, Harris is an inmate at the state’s Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Comstock. He pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted first-degree murder in the shootings of Parete and her partner, Officer Carl E. Andolina, six years ago.
“Harris deserves to get whatever is the maximum allowed under law, and I wish it was the death penalty,” a city police official said, adding that he did not think it proper to comment on the record until after Parete’s funeral.
Sedita outlined the tough issues that he faces in determining whether to seek a first-degree murder charge against Harris:
• The decent chance that Harris won’t ever be paroled, under his current sentence. That 30-years-to-life term means that Harris won’t even be eligible to appear before the Parole Board until 2037, at the earliest.
Sedita cited the sentencing comments of State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang: “It is the expectation of the court and the recommendation of the court that the defendant will never be released from prison.”
That’s why Sedita thinks the chances of Harris ever being released are fairly remote.
• The legal consequences of re-indicting Harris on the more serious first-degree murder charge.
Sedita and his staff are researching whether a new trial would result in the dismissal of the previous conviction against Harris.
The district attorney said he has committed a significant amount of resources in fighting Harris’ appeals of his sentence. Harris would love nothing more than another bid to win freedom or a reduced sentence, Sedita suggested.
• The uncertain results of a new trial. There are multiple possibilities, including an acquittal, a conviction on a lesser charge, a shorter sentence or a first-degree murder conviction that could lead to life without parole.
“Is the risk worth the reward?” Sedita asked. “After this whole process, depending on who the judge would be, [Harris] actually could get less time than he’s going to get right now ... I cannot afford to act recklessly or stupidly.”
• The Parete family’s wishes. “I’m not ready to have that conversation with them right now, because they’re not ready to have that conversation,” Sedita said. “They need to mourn.”
If there were a new trial, the prosecution would have to prove that the shooting was at least a “significant contributing factor” in the 48-year-old Parete’s death, Sedita said.
There will be no autopsy, based on her family’s wishes, the medical examiner and district attorney have agreed.
“The family explained to the medical examiner that these were Officer Parete’s wishes,” Sedita said.
Parete, recently under Hospice care, died just after 2 a.m. Saturday in her Niagara County home.
She was shot twice during a struggle the night of Dec. 5, 2006, when she and Andolina responded to a fight call at West Chippewa Street and Whitney Place. Her spine was severely damaged by the second bullet.
Andolina, shot three times, managed to wrestle Harris to the ground, even though he was wounded.
Andolina, whose injuries included a bullet wound in the neck, retired about a year ago on a disability pension. Tuesday, he issued a statement on the eve of Parete’s funeral, calling it a time to celebrate her life.
“The events of Dec. 5, 2006, were tragic on many levels,” Andolina stated. “Now is not the time to relive the incident which shattered Patty Parete’s life. It should, however, be a time to celebrate Patty’s time with us and embrace her family and friends in love and support.”
“Patty spent the last six years fighting every day,” Andolina continued.“She was and always will be an inspiration to everyone she touched.”
Andolina also said that he joins his family in thoughts and prayers for Parete, her family and friends. And he thanked Western New Yorkers for their support for her during her struggles.
“May God bless her and give strength to her loved ones,” he concluded. “And may no one among us forget her service and sacrifice.”