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The Troy Record
By: Ryan T. Fitzpatrick, The Record
ALBANY – A state appeals court upheld the controversial 20-year prison sentence of Jon Romano, the former student who fired a shotgun several times in the halls of Columbia High School and wounded a teacher.
In a 4-1 decision handed down Thursday, the state Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department, ruled Romano “knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily waived his right to appeal,” thereby precluding him from appealing the sentence, which his attorney argued was harsh and excessive given Romano’s history of mental illness and the 50 to 75 years in prison he faced if he lost at trial.
“Although we do not reach the question of whether this sentence was harsh and excessive, we note that it was significantly less than the 75-year maximum sentence that could have been imposed upon the attempted murder convictions – crimes defendant continues to freely admit to committing,” wrote Justice Thomas E. Mercure on behalf of the majority.
The decision was a victory for District Attorney Patricia DeAngelis, who came under fire after she brought an 86-count indictment against Romano. Critics said the teen needed treatment for mental illness and not hard time.
“The law was on our side in this case, and the Appellate Division agreed,” DeAngelis said at a news conference in the Rensselaer County Courthouse. “I wouldn’t do anything different in this case. You can’t stand for this as district attorney. You can’t have this in schools.”
DeAngelis said the plea bargain was fair given the amount of time Romano could have received if convicted at trial.
“When Jon Romano pleaded guilty … he was given a gift,” said DeAngelis. “The evidence was overwhelming.”
Troy attorney E. Stewart Jones, who represented Romano, said the court set a “harmful precedent” by refusing to address the sentence as an interest-of-justice matter.
“So often in the criminal prosecution process, pleas are entered into, even though the plea is unfair and the sentence is excessive, in order to avoid worse consequences, which is exactly what happened with Romano,” said Jones. “So essentially you’re having prosecutors and judges extort agreements from defendants who are terrified to go to trial.”
The decision had a single dissenter on the panel, presiding Justice Anthony V. Cardona, who argued that, given Romano’s history of mental illness, there was insufficient support in the court record to indicate that Romano fully understood that he was giving up his right to appeal when he signed the plea agreement.
“At the time that he purported to waive his right to appeal, defendant had just turned 17 years old, very nearly the youngest age at which any defendant could be confronted with the critical decision at issue here,” wrote Cardona. “He had no prior experience with the criminal justice system. In my view, under all the circumstances herein, that sentence is harsh and excessive and should be reduced.
“Indeed, we have all witnessed the devastating results of gun violence in schools; it is unacceptable. Nevertheless, justice and the law demand that each case be evaluated on its own facts.”
Romano, who turned 20 three days ago, was 16 when he brought a 12-gauge shotgun to school the morning of Feb. 9, 2004. He loaded the weapon in the boy’s bathroom and sent text messages to three friends to warn them. He contemplated his actions for 15 minutes and then emerged from the bathroom, fired twice at students but missed. Assistant Principal John Sawchuck tackled Romano, and the gun fired once more, striking special education teacher Michael Bennett in the leg.
At the time, Romano was taking the anti-depressant medication Paxil and had recently left Four Winds Psychiatric Center in Saratoga Springs. DeAngelis argued that, despite Romano’s condition, he knew exactly what he did was wrong. The DA sought to dispel what she said was an incorrect depiction by the media of the events leading to Bennett’s wounding.
“For a long time now there has been a misconception about this case,” said DeAngelis. “Jon Romano did not accidentally shoot Mike Bennett. That gun did not accidentally go off. Jon Romano admitted that gun went off intentionally, because he wanted to shoot Mike Bennett.”
Additionally, DeAngelis noted that Romano had fired at two students, with one shot coming so close as to blow the baseball cap off one student’s head.
“There are a lot of victims in this case,” said DeAngelis. “It was horrible. To say this was a victimless crime because everyone lived is ridiculous.”
Jones, however, argued that Romano became a scapegoat in a society fearful of school violence when the 20-year sentence was put on the table with the possibility of 50 years or more as an alternative.
“Jon was punished for what-ifs and because of external factors,” said Jones. “He was punished because of Columbine. He was punished because of Virginia Tech. He was punished because of other instances in other schools where deaths have resulted. And he was punished because it could have happened here, but it didn’t happen here, and it shouldn’t have been a factor in deciding the appropriate punishment for him.”
Jones said a further appeal to the Court of Appeals would be unlikely to succeed as that court is charged with evaluating the law, not the individual application of the law to specific cases.
“We are going to look at what our options are,” said Jones. “We do have a dissent by Judge Cardona, which we endorse and agree with, but the Court of Appeals does not have jurisdiction to entertain interest-of-justice arguments.”
Romano remains in the Clinton maximum security prison, located in Dannemora. He has been holding up as well as one can expect, said Jones.
“He’s very young, but he’s taking every opportunity to move forward with his life, to educate himself, to ultimately achieve high school and college equivalency degrees,” said Jones.
First Assistant District Attorney Joseph Ahearn handled the appeal for the DA’s office. The ruling was the most notable of four handed down in the office’s favor Thursday.