Injustice is exponential. Anyone wrongly convicted of a horrible crime pays an unfathomable price. Yet he or she is not the only person who suffers. The stain of shame, in any decent family, spreads to the mother and father. It touches brothers and sisters. The black cloud hangs over them all – although parents bear the largest emotional burden.
It was never truer than with Albert and Mary Capozzi.
Their mentally damaged son, Anthony, was somehow convicted of raping two women in Delaware Park in the 1980s. It was the era before DNA evidence was used in court. Anthony, who suffers from schizophrenia, did not fully understood what was happening. His mother told me that, during the trial, Anthony would say: “Mom, I wasn’t in Delaware Park. Why are they saying that?”
Albert and Mary Capozzi lived for decades in a tidy corner house on the West Side. They went to Holy Angels Catholic Church and raised five kids – the Italian-American equivalent of Ozzie and Harriet. They drove to Utica every week to visit their incarcerated son.
I sat at their kitchen table six years ago, when news of Anthony’s possible innocence surfaced. The kitchen was spotless, with a portrait of the Virgin Mary on the refrigerator. The kindness and consideration between them filled the air; sitting there was the emotional equivalent of a warm bath.
Bike Path Killer/Rapist Altemio Sanchez had just been arrested. Uncovering Sanchez led a police task force to re-examine similar crimes. They concluded that Sanchez committed the rapes for which man-child Anthony Capozzi was convicted. He was freed soon after.
Anthony sacrificed 22 years of freedom. The punishment for Albert and Mary Capozzi was living with society’s belief that they – in a house filled with love – had raised a predator.
“The grief and shame, you never come out of it,” Albert Capozzi Sr. told me at the time. “The way people look at you.”
Despite the pain, they never allowed the injustice of what happened – either before or after Anthony’s exoneration – to make them bitter, to corrode their essential decency. It was, to me, a testament to their emotional bonds, a tribute to their character.
“Despite what happened, I never heard them say a bad word about any judge, cop or prosecutor,” said Dennis Delano, the ex-Buffalo cop who was part of the task force. “They never even had a bad word for Sanchez.
“At first I didn’t think anybody could be this nice,” added Delano, who in recent years regularly had coffee with Albert, “but it was true – they were.”
It was justice multiplied then, when Anthony was exonerated six years ago. His name was cleared – and the parents who never lost faith had their burden lifted. No one knew how close of a call it was. Mary died in 2009. Albert, 87, passed away Monday.
“It meant the world to [my parents] to have Anthony cleared, to know in their hearts that he was a good person,” said Pam Guenther, Anthony’s sister, “and to show everyone that this wasn’t who their son really was.”
Mary Capozzi never believed that Anthony was guilty. Guenther, however, told me at her father’s wake Wednesday that Albert carried a seed of doubt – a seed finally crushed when Anthony was exonerated.
Guenther said her parents “were so grateful” to the whole task force. “They needed people to fight for them to prove Anthony’s innocence,” she said. “We had tried, and we couldn’t do it.”
The injustice of what happened to Anthony was balanced by the joy his freedom brought to these profoundly decent people.
They had – thankfully – lived to see their son cleared, and the stain washed from the family name.
I ran into Erie County Sheriff’s Detective Al Rozansky, another member of the police task force, the day after Albert’s death.
“Nothing I ever did in police work gave me the feeling that I got from that one,” Rozansky told me. “I get goose bumps, thinking about being part of the [task force] who did that for the Capozzis. … God has the two of them sitting in big chairs up there.”
The Capozzi story is the shining example of why good cops – and conscientious prosecutors – do what they do. The aim is not to convict someone of a crime. It is to convict the guilty someone. There is no justice – for the victim, for society, for the criminal – unless and until the right person is punished. For 22 years, Anthony Capozzi – and his parents – paid for Sanchez’s crimes.
That awful injustice ended only because of a task force of cops: Rozansky, Delano, Steve Nigrelli, Chris Weber, Ed Monan, Greg Savage, Ted DiNoto, Michael Rose, Joe LaCorte, Scott Patronik, Lissa Redmond. They not only caught a killer; they freed an innocent man and restored peace of mind to his family.
A good man died Monday. We mourn his passing. But anyone who knew Albert and Mary Capozzi is thankful that they lived long enough to learn the truth. Anything less would have been the deepest injustice of all.