After State Police investigators concluded that they had solved the mysteries dwelling for 34 years in Patti Rodriguez’s cold case murder file, prosecutors faced a key question.
Did they have enough evidence to proceed to trial?
Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III never wavered from his long-held belief that he could not successfully prosecute Michael Rodriguez in the killing of his estranged wife, even after police arrested him at his South Buffalo home Wednesday morning.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman disagrees; he believes he has a case.
More than three decades after the young mother’s body was found with 108 stab wounds in Lackawanna’s Holy Cross Cemetery, a murder indictment may now answer questions.
The upcoming trial will also settle lingering questions over whether the district attorney has exercised the wisdom that sometimes calls for a prosecutor to pass on filing charges, or if it now takes Schneiderman’s team to dispense the justice sought by the victim’s family for all those years.
Sedita, who was the subject of a January article in The Buffalo News outlining police complaints over his reticence to accept cases without “slam dunk” evidence, said his decision not to prosecute the Rodriguez case was “a tough one.” And while he declined to delve into specifics, he acknowledged that additional evidence has been gathered in the case. Sedita said he stands ready to assist but will pass on prosecuting the case himself.
“It’s not unusual that professional prosecutors sometimes disagree with police officers and sometimes in their judgments on how strong or how weak a case is,” Sedita said Wednesday. “I came to the conclusion that the best course of conduct in this case would be to defer to the Attorney General’s Office and offer the assistance of the District Attorney’s Office.
“I am conflicted about what I think about his guilt or innocence versus what I think I could prove,” Sedita added after Michael Rodriguez’s arrest.
Sedita has consistently pointed out that three predecessors as district attorney – Edward C. Cosgrove, Kevin M. Dillon and Frank J. Clark – also passed on pressing charges against Rodriguez. But now, as the attorney general takes the rare step of assuming a homicide case normally handled by the local prosecutor, Sedita said he recognizes that criticism aimed his way from some quarters will only intensify.
“I take pride in being a career professional prosecutor, and I work very hard, as do the attorneys in this office, to make calls based on evidence and fact,” he said. “Invariably, it comes down to judgment.
“I like to think those judgments are generally correct,” he added, “but I certainly recognize I have been wrong, can be wrong, and in the future can be wrong about such things.”
But while law enforcement officials declined to publicly discuss Sedita’s course of action, Patricia A. Scinta, mother of the victim, did not.
“I just think Frank Sedita didn’t want to be bothered. It happened so long ago. Some DAs want a weapon and a confession. That’s all I can figure,” Scinta said.
The 81-year-old mother said it upsets her that neither Sedita nor his predecessors would aggressively pursue the case. “It was a horrible way to die, and you’d think they’d want to get the person,” she said.
Area police have explained in the past that they are loath to publicly criticize the district attorney because they must work with him in bringing other criminal cases to prosecution.
State Police Capt. Steven A. Nigrelli, head of the Criminal Bureau of Investigation in Batavia, was among those declining to comment Wednesday.
The case was fist referred to the Attorney General’s Office by the state police five years ago when Andrew M. Cuomo, now the governor, was attorney general. “Gov. Cuomo is pleased that a case commenced during his time as attorney general was brought to justice,”’ said Matthew L. Wing, a Cuomo spokesman.
Police sources have said that it was out of frustration that the case was brought to the Attorney General’s Office, after attempts to get the DA’s Office interested in prosecuting the case.
Schneiderman, meanwhile, said his office became involved following a State Police request. But he also used measured tones to explain the involvement of his office.
During an interview in his Capitol office a few hours after Rodriquez was indicted, the attorney general said the case was brought to his lawyers, as well as prosecutors in Sedita’s office, in 2009.
“The State Police refused to give up on this case, to their credit,” Schneiderman said. “They came to us and the Erie County DA in 2009. We decided there was merit in the case and decided to go forward. The DA was amenable to that, and we’ve been pursuing the case since then.”
Schneiderman said he will not criticize Sedita for passing on the case.
“Yes,” he answered when asked if he was satisfied the case will be handled by the state and not the local DA. “It got a good result.”
He said the decision that his office take the case and not the district attorney was done “under mutual agreement.”
“We thought there was merit in the case, and we work with the State Police a lot. They refer matters to us,” he said. “It’s a very unusual case, and we felt that we had the resources and ability to pursue this kind of thing, maybe more effectively, so that is what we did and I’m very proud of the result.”
Asked what made the case unusual enough for him to get involved, the attorney general said: “This is a murder in 1979. This is way beyond an ordinary murder investigation. All of the basic forensic evidence was there, but dealing with a cold case like this has a whole other set of challenges. It’s not like a murder that was committed last week. It’s a very different kind of investigation that our folks did, very innovative work in cooperation with the State Police, and, remarkably, it led to this indictment decades after the crime was committed.”
He added, “This was a truly despicable crime. An estranged husband stabbing a 21-year-old woman with two children more than a hundred times on Good Friday and leaving her in a graveyard. It was important that we renew the investigation, and we did, and due to the great work of our prosecutors and investigators and our partners in the State Police, we were able to put the evidence together, and Michael Rodriquez was indicted … and we expect him to face justice, finally.”
In an earlier news conference, Schneiderman said he had heard the mother of the victim say her prayers had been answered.
“Whenever you can answer a mother’s prayers, it’s a good day,” he said.
The attorney general declined to provide details about the DNA evidence used to crack the case, “but I think it’s fair to say there are a lot of things we can do with DNA now that we couldn’t do in 1979.”