It may not have been an easy decision – indeed, District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III says it was one of his most difficult – but Erie County’s top prosecutor made the right call in declining to re-prosecute the man who shot Buffalo Police Officer Patricia A. Parete. Justice has already been done and the downsides of reopening the case are greater than its potential benefits.
Parete and her partner, Officer Carl E. Andolina, were shot in 2006 after responding to a call to a fight. Parete was shot twice, with the second bullet severely damaging her spine. She was paralyzed from the neck down.
Varner Harris Jr. was arrested on the spot and later pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted first-degree murder. But with Parete’s death three months ago, Harris could potentially have been retried on a charge of first-degree murder and, if convicted, sentenced to a term of life without parole.
Harris is now serving a term of 30 years to life in prison at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Washington County. He will not be eligible for parole for another 24 years and, given his crime, his criminal history and the sentencing recommendation of the judge, Sedita believes it will be “highly unlikely” that Harris will ever be released.
Those facts make a pretty solid case for leaving well enough alone, but there were other issues that Sedita was bound to consider. One is that Parete, for publicly undisclosed reasons, made it known that she did not want Harris re-prosecuted in the event of her death. Her family also advised the district attorney not to reopen the case.
It makes sense not to retry Harris, as an unnamed top official in the Buffalo Police Department counseled Sedita. If the victim didn’t want Harris re-prosecuted and her survivors don’t want it and there is nothing practical to be gained by a new trial, why do it?
What is more, there were good reasons not to proceed, beyond the renewed trauma that a new trial could force upon Parete’s bereaved family and friends. Given all the other circumstances, though, perhaps the best reason not to reopen the case is that a trial is always a risk. However unlikely it might be, Harris could be found not guilty. And all that could have been gained was a sentence of life without parole when, in fact, that is effectively the sentence that Harris is already serving.
There is, of course, something to be said for hanging a murder conviction around Harris’ neck. He shot two police officers in the course of their duty, ruining Parete’s life and, while it may never be proven, almost certainly causing her death.
That’s murder and, in the name of justice and of all police officers who daily face unknown dangers, it would be satisfying to know that Harris was identified that way.
But it’s not necessary and there are many other reasons to let this sleeping dog lie. Sedita made the right call.