Recognition must be given to Christopher S. Weber, a senior investigator for the State Police who refused to give up on solving a brutal murder committed 34 years ago.
Praise is also due to New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman for stepping in to prosecute the case. Demerits, however, go to Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III for declining to go forward with the case.
The body of Patricia Christine “Patti” Scinta – stabbed 108 times – was found in 1979 in Lackawanna’s Holy Cross Cemetery. Finally, last week, State Police arrested a suspect in the case: Michael Rodriguez, the woman’s husband.
Dogged determination by Weber and State Police, along with DNA evidence that wasn’t available using the technology of three decades ago, resulted in the 59-year-old’s arrest. Now, a lingering question remains: Why didn’t the district attorney pursue the case?
State Police tried to get Sedita’s office interested in prosecuting the murder. Officers went to both the Attorney General’s Office and the Erie County DA in 2009, according to a carefully worded statement from Schneiderman. He stuck to the facts: “We decided there was merit in the case and decided to go forward.” He added, “The DA was amenable to that, and we’ve been pursuing the case since then.”
Sedita has come under fire before from critics who, as News staff reporter Lou Michel wrote in January, say he cherry-picks cases he is certain will end in successful prosecutions, refuses to prosecute cases unless the evidence is ironclad, and relishes high conviction rates more than the fight for justice.
Patricia A. Scinta, the mother of the Lackawanna murder victim, says she’s convinced 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.”
Sedita has found himself in an uncomfortable position before, explaining why he doesn’t take certain cases. He has, as recently reported, consistently pointed out three predecessors as district attorney – Edward C. Cosgrove, Kevin M. Dillon and Frank J. Clark – who also declined to press charges against Rodriguez.
State Police reopened the case in 2009 at the request of Lackawanna Police Chief James Michel.
Schneiderman has done something unusual for an attorney general, taking on a homicide case normally handled by the local prosecutor.
The decision on whether to prosecute the case is a judgment call. Sedita says there’s not enough evidence to convict Rodriguez.
With Schneiderman agreeing to go forward with the case, Sedita has received the kind of rebuke that rarely comes his way. He was re-elected last year to a second term without opposition. Area police officials and lawyers who might have to deal with Sedita in the future are reluctant to criticize him.
Sedita’s lack of action on the case looked bad and forced Schneiderman to step in. As Schneiderman said, “Whenever you can answer a mother’s prayers, it’s a good day.”