Daniel Cicciaro, in photograph
Gov. David Paterson on Thursday commuted the sentence of a black Long Island man whose slaying of a white teenager exposed racial fault lines and provoked a debate over the line between self-defense and murder.
With just more than a week left in his governorship, Mr. Paterson freed John White, who was convicted in 2007 of second-degree manslaughter for shooting 17-year-old Daniel "Dano" Cicciaro in front of Mr. White's home in Miller Place in 2006. Mr. White was released after serving about six and a half months in prison.
Accompanied by a group of friends, Mr. Cicciaro arrived at the house in a drunken rage after leaving a party, according to trial testimony. He wanted to confront Mr. White's son, who he thought had threatened to rape a 15-year-old girl, a sister of one of Mr. Cicciaro's friends.
Mr. White raced out of his home with a Beretta pistol to protect his son, Aaron, who had attended the same party. After a struggle, Mr. White shot Mr. Cicciaro in the cheek, leaving a .32-caliber bullet in his brain. Mr. Cicciaro wasn't armed, but his friends had a baseball bat in the back seat of Mr. Cicciaro's Mustang. And one shouted racial epithets while rushing the dying teenager to the hospital, according to a 911 call transcript.
Mr. White insisted his actions were self-defense, and invoked his family's painful experiences with racial prejudice. And his lawyers noted that the source of Mr. Cicciaro's anger, a months-old online posting, turned out to be a hoax. A jury concluded that the shooting was indefensible.
"My decision today may be an affront to some and a joy to others, but my objective is only to seek to ameliorate the profound suffering that occurred as a result of this tragic event," Mr. Paterson said in a statement.
Thomas Spota, the Suffolk County district attorney who prosecuted Mr. White, didn't criticize the governor's decision, but he chided Mr. Paterson for not reaching out to the Cicciaro family beforehand. "I strongly believe the Governor should have had the decency and the compassion to at least contact the victim's family to allow them to be heard before commuting the defendant's sentence," Mr. Spota said in a statement. His office declined further comment.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Paterson said state corrections and parole officials notified the Cicciaro family "in accordance" with protocols. "The governor was aware of the statements made by the family at the time of Mr. White's sentencing," stated the spokeswoman in an email. Mr. Paterson made his decision on Wednesday and didn't speak directly to Mr. White, she said.
Mr. White, a 57-year-old asphalt foreman, was freed shortly after 8 a.m. He spoke briefly Thursday to reporters at his driveway, the site of the shooting. He said he felt blessed and wished them Merry Christmas, according to news reports. His lawyer, Frederick Brewington, said that Mr. White and his family are praying for the Cicciaro family, and that Mr. White plans to return to work after a period of "introspection."
Local NAACP officials had campaigned aggressively on behalf of Mr. White. In October, the state chapter passed a resolution calling for his sentence to be commuted. "It's time for healing," said Hazel Dukes, president of the state chapter. "The district attorney did his job, and the governor did his job. No one is rejoicing; no one is gloating."
Beresford Adams, the pastor of the Faith Baptist church in Coram, Long Island, where Mr. White serves as a deacon, said Mr. White "is very mindful of the pain that the family suffered." The pastor said Mr. White's "faith sustained him and certainly helped him cope with the terrible ordeal."
He said he spoke with Mr. White by phone on Thursday after he was freed. "He just wanted to know when the next church service would be," Mr. Adams said.
A person who answered the phone at an auto-repair shop owned by Daniel Cicciaro's parents in nearby Port Jefferson Station declined to comment. His mother, Joanne Cicciaro, called the killing a murder during the trial and denied her son had racial motives.
In March 2008, Mr. White was sentenced to 1-1/3 to four years, a term that included a concurrent sentence for a weapons charge. He wasn't incarcerated until earlier this year, after an appellate court upheld his conviction. A panel of judges found "ample support" for the jury's conclusion that Mr. White's use of deadly force was not justified.
Mr. White would have been eligible for parole release on Feb. 15, 2012, state officials said.
Since taking office in March 2008, Mr. Paterson has pardoned nine people convicted of crimes that included drug possession, robbery, and attempted murder. All of them were immigrants subject to deportation because of their prior convictions.
In December 2008, Mr. Paterson commuted the sentences of Joanne Carroll, a Staten Island woman sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2001 for first-degree robbery, and Freddie Warren, a Suffolk man and repeat felon sentenced to 20 years to life after a drug conviction. Both had a record of good behavior behind bars and completed educational and training programs, the governor's office said.