LOCKPORT – Timothy C. DePetris, the Niagara Falls businessman who allegedly tried to hire a hit man after failing in his own effort to kill his brother-in-law, was hard-pressed Thursday to offer proof that he is being denied his rights in solitary confinement in the Niagara County Jail.
DePetris took the witness stand in a hearing on the issue in Niagara County Court, but he repeatedly left Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas with nothing to go on but his word that he was barred from contacting his lawyer after being placed in solitary.
He was removed from the general jail population after he was arraigned June 10 on charges that he tried to hire a hit man through contact with a fellow inmate and phone calls to the outside.
He had been in jail since his March 30 arrest on attempted murder charges stemming from the shooting of Sandro Viola, his brother-in-law and owner of a rival business, March 26 at Viola’s office.
At the June arraignment, Farkas cut off DePetris’ phone privileges, except for calls to his attorney, E. Earl Key.
But under cross-examination by Deputy District Attorney Doreen M. Hoffmann, DePetris admitted that he hadn’t tried to call anyone since June 13. “I didn’t think I was allowed to,” he said.
He said that on June 13 he asked to use the law library and was refused.
He said he asked to use the law library twice more, on July 2 and 9, and also was refused. But it turned out that the latter occasions actually involved attempts to find Key’s mailing address, since DePetris had lost it. He said the guards told him he had to look it up in the library.
After that, he said, “I gave up on it. I was a little afraid to keep asking.”
But as Hoffmann repeatedly pointed out, there is no written evidence that he kept asking after July 9.
Sgt. Anthony R. Suess testified that the jail’s “law library” is a computer on a cart, offering access to the Lexis-Nexis online legal search service.
Suess said inmates need to hand in a permission slip to use the computer, and any denials are to be recorded in writing. He said DePetris’ file contains no such rejections.
Only one of the three permission slips entered into evidence had any written response on it.
Key established that a guard receiving a permission slip is supposed to initial it before taking it to a superior, and two of the slips have no such initials, meaning it’s possible that the slips never were taken up the chain of command.
Suess will have to testify on that issue when the hearing resumes Tuesday.
DePetris said he was able to use the law computer regularly before being sent to solitary, because another inmate in his pod was a former paralegal and helped teach others how to use Lexis-Nexis.
Since that inmate was always signed on, DePetris didn’t have to log in himself. DePetris said that’s why there’s no record of what he said were frequent uses of the law computer before he was removed from the general jail population.
DePetris also complained that he was often moved from the special housing unit, which is near the infirmary, to a cell in the busy inmate processing area. He said he is unable to sleep there because of the commotion.
Key argued, “He’s not mentally competent if he’s not getting any sleep.”
DePetris said he was placed on “generic Prozac” three or four weeks ago because of anxiety. He said he didn’t need those drugs before he went to solitary, although he admitted taking Prozac on the outside 10 years ago.
Suess said the moves were necessitated by other inmates with medical problems needing to be near the infirmary.