ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. David Paterson commuted the sentence Thursday of a black man imprisoned for the racially charged shooting death of a white teenager on Long Island, a decision in the final days of his administration that infuriated the lawyer who prosecuted the case.
Paterson said the five months John Harris White has served was enough time for the emotion-fuled 2006 shooting death of Daniel Cicciaro. Paterson said everybody connected with the case had suffered enough.
A judge sentenced White to two to four years in prison, a fraction of the maximum. He finally went to prison in July of this year after his appeals were rejected.
White teenagers were feuding with John White’s 19-year-old son when they went by the carload to their home in August 2006. White was convicted of manslaughter for shooting one of the teenagers in what he referred to as a lynch mob.
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota blasted Paterson, who is also black, for the decision.
“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,” Spota said.
Spota said a court, upheld by an appellate court, agreed that a reasonable person wouldn’t have believed deadly force was needed that hot summer night.
In a courtroom secured by 18 police officers because of the racial tensions, White testified that he was trying to protect his family when the white teenagers turned up at his house. He claimed his pistol fired accidentally when Cicciaro lunged for it.
The victim had a blood-alcohol reading above the legal limit for driving and was just 3 inches from the pistol when he was shot.
White had said his son, Aaron, woke him around 11 p.m. to say teens he had argued with at a party were headed to the Whites’ house in Miller Place, a predominantly white community on eastern Long Island.
The younger White had earlier complied with a request to leave the beer bash after he was suspected of posting online threats against a teenage girl at the party. The story of the threats turned out to be bogus, but when Cicciaro and others heard about what happened, they headed for Miller Place, making cell phone calls to Aaron White.
John White testified that he grew up in Brooklyn hearing stories about how the Ku Klux Klan had torched his grandfather’s business in Alabama in the 1920s. He said he feared a similar attack was about to happen.
“Our society strives to be just, but the pursuit of justice is a difficult and arduous endeavor,” Paterson said in the commutation, one of his last acts in office.
“While the incident and Mr. White’s trial engendered much controversy and comment, and varying assessments of justice were perceived, its most common feature was heartbreak,” Paterson said. “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.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton praised Paterson’s decision.
“We salute Gov. Paterson’s decision and hope that all families involved will move towards healing,” Sharpton said. “There are no winners in this situation. The governor in my judgment showed great courage and fairness.”