Tuesday, May 27, 2003
Village haunted by 10-year-old murder case
By Tom Grace
NEW BERLIN Few want to talk about it, but 10 years ago this month, April M. Dell'Olio, 15, was found innocent of murdering her 17-year-old boyfriend, David S. Eccleston of New Berlin.
Dell'Olio's attorneys didn't deny she had stabbed Eccleston repeatedly; she'd admitted that. But Joseph McBride and Stephen Dunshee convinced the jury that the freshman honor roll student had suffered a "brief reactive psychosis," while stabbing the senior basketball star of New Berlin Central School.
The killing took place on the morning of Oct. 20, 1992 off Railroad Street and a set off a chain of painful reactions in the village of New Berlin. Eccleston had been a native popular and college-bound and his death shocked and enraged many. The Dell'Olios were more recent arrivals, and didn't have [an error occurred while processing this directive]many fans.
As police investigated, they learned that Eccleston and Dell'Olio had been having sex, exchanging explicit letters, and that he was about to break up with her.
Police also uncovered a seamy side of adolescent life in the valley, where teens were drinking, smoking, partying and having casual sex.
This all came to light during a lengthy trial in Norwich in May of 1993. Part of the defense strategy was to stress that Eccleston had been mean and domineering with the impressionable young girl. Speaking ill of the dead, especially this popular young man, did not set well locally.
The one responsible for the widespread pain and embarrassment was a 15-year-old girl, close to tears in the gold-domed courtroom. She sat with her attorneys, charged with second-degree murder, facing life in prison if convicted. She had one way out: her attorneys had to convince the jury that she'd been temporarily insane when she stabbed an abusive, controlling lover 21 times on that autumn morning.
Attorneys McBride and Dunshey drove relentlessly toward that conclusion. They harped on Eccleston's faults. Their psychologists said Dell'Olio was slow-witted, unable to handle stress and had snapped uncontrollably when Eccleston threatened to leave her.
Chenango County District Attorney James Downey portrayed the girl as a murderer who'd stabbed her boyfriend one morning, then gone on to school.
In the end, the jury found her innocent by reason of temporary insanity. She was ordered to undergo analysis. If she'd been found insane, she would have been institutionalized as a danger to society and herself. But during the trial, her attorneys said she'd only briefly lost her mind, and Downey had said she was sane, so there was no one to argue she was insane.
Dell'Olio was let go, and the village of New Berlin was seething.
Ten years later, the case still cuts deep, says one of the two men who found Eccleston's body.
"I wish I hadn't been involved and don't put my name in the paper," he said. "That was a bad time. I don't want to bring it up."
Ten years later, McBride is Chenango County district attorney, and doesn't want to dwell on a case where the defendant got away. "I think it was a manslaughter case; I don't think it should have been tried," he said. "I felt sorry for the kid; he didn't deserve to die, but I think it was manslaughter."
Dunshey, who grew up in this valley and graduated from New Berlin Central School, said the case turned on psychological testimony.
Downey's psychologists didn't stand up well to McBride's cross examinations and the defense had an unshakable witness, Dr. Judy Grimes, he said.
"She was firm, committed in her direct examination and I believe that's what swung the jury," said Dunshee.
It was Grimes who said the girl had been temporarily out of her mind when she stabbed her boyfriend.
Having a jury mostly of women helped too, said Dunshey.
"We wanted women because women listen more, whereas men make their minds up faster. We were also looking for educated people, especially people with a science background. We wanted analytical people to listen to the psychologists," he said.
When it came, the verdict stunned many, even Chenango County Judge Kevin M. Dowd, who would later say, "I have never in my entire legal career had a case with more disturbing overtones than this one. A young man is dead and I am hamstrung by the law to treat it with the psychiatric equivalent that April had a bad hair day on Oct. 20, 1992."
Dunshey said, "I don't know of another case where someone has claimed mental disability at the time of the murder, then received that verdict. It may be unique."
He and McBride won the high profile case, but Dunshey said he wishes he'd never represented April Dell'Olio..
"I'm from over there. I grew up in South Edmeston, went to New Berlin Central School," he said. "I go over the hill a couple of times a month and I know people are still angry."
Downey is a Norwich City Court judge and said he still finds the Dell'Olio verdict difficult to accept.
Ten years later, an Internet search reveals only one April M. Dell'Olio, 25, in New York state, living on Long Island.
Dunshey said she has not been in trouble with the law.
"Every five years, the court has done psychological interviews with her and her family and she moved out of the area," he said. "When the reports came back, she didn't have any legal problems. She hasn't been in trouble; that's really all I can say."
Diann Davission, New Berlin village clerk, said longtime area residents made up their minds about the Dell'Olio case years ago, and probably won't ever change. But the village has seen an influx of people from downstate and is slowly evolving, she noted.
"It's hard to believe that was 10 years ago now, but I think that slowly we're becoming a different place," she said.