Priests' Killers Get 50 Years to Life: Judge Regrets State Forbids Death Penalty

By Matt Gryta
Buffalo News
November 2, 1988

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Two Buffalo teen-agers were sentenced today to 50 years to life in prison for the torture-murders of two Catholic priests during church robberies last year.

State Supreme Court Justice Frederick M. Marshall said he wanted to impose the death penalty but cannot under New York State law. Under the sentence Marshall imposed, neither defendant is eligible for parole until he has spent at least 50 years in custody. Marshall sentenced Theodore Simmons, 19, and Milton Jones, 18, to the maximum possible terms. He said the harsh punishment is meant to "voice the outrage and disgust of this community" for the slayings of the Rev. A. Joseph Bissonette and Monsignor David P. Herlihy.

Marshall, who presided over both jury trials, said he didn't believe the killers' courtroom claims of remorse today. If the priests had been slain in a state that permits the death penalty, Marshall said, he would have "without a doubt" ordered them executed. The judge said he is sure both priests forgave their killers, but the courts cannot. "Forgiving is one thing and justice is another," Marshall said. He rejected both defendants' claims that their "ghetto" upbringing propelled them into lives of crime. Marshall also told Simmons he didn't believe his claim of being coerced by Jones into at tacking the priests. Marshall denounced Simmons as a "pathological liar" and said he was convinced by massive evidence in the case that Simmons was the "prime mover in the crime." Simmons had protested that he is a "coward" who didn't realize Jones planned to kill the priests. In conflicting comments to the judge, Jones, through a court-ap pointed attorney, and Simmons each blamed the other for the murders. But both admitted they deliberately participated in what they claimed were only supposed to be robberies of the priests.

Jailed since their arrests only days after the murder of the monsignor, Simmons and Jones were both convicted of felony murder, first-degree robbery and weapons counts. Father Bissonette, 55, was slain in the rectory of St. Bartholomew's Church on Grider Street Feb. 24, 1987. Monsignor Herlihy, 74, was killed in the rectory of St. Matthew's Church on Wyoming Avenue March 7, 1987. Both priests were bound, gagged, tied to chairs and bludgeoned during the late-night attacks at churches about a mile apart. Father Bissonette, pastor of St. Bartholomew's, was stabbed 10 times during a $200 robbery. The semi-retired monsignor was stabbed 20 times during a $700 robbery. Jones was convicted Jan. 30 of both intentional or premeditated murder and murder committed during a felony crime against both priests. Simmons was convicted Sept. 22 of only the felony murder count in the attack on Father Bissonette, but he was convicted of both intentional and felony murder in the attack on the monsignor.

Marshall criticized the jurors in Simmons' trial, saying he "will never be able to reconcile" their decision to drop the premeditated murder count in the Bissonette slaying. The 50-year sentence is the current maximum time state law permits authorities to keep anyone in prison, no matter what term a judge imposes. The time both defendants have spent in custody here will count against their prison time, leaving them eligible for parole in about 48 1/2 years, unless a New York governor should decide to grant them clemency before then.

In comments that will be reviewed by state prison and parole officials in considering parole, Marshall pointedly denounced both defendants for "systematically and ritualistically" killing two men he called "kind and gentle souls" who had devoted their lives to the poor. Noting what he called the irony of the murders of two men who had deliberately chosen to live and work among the city's poorer classes, Marshall said the same social conditions the priests sought to correct -- drug addition, poor schools, poverty and other social failings -- played a role in the case. "These evils ultimately contributed to their violent deaths," Marshall said.

In refusing to consider leniency for either defendant, Marshall told them, "You stripped them (the victims) of all human dignity." Simmons, who is tall and slender, told the judge that the 6-foot- 3-inch, 220-pound Jones, a high school football player and weight- lifter, forced him to help him commit both robberies. Those remarks were later disputed by the judge and relatives of both murdered priests. But Simmons insisted today he didn't do anything to harm either priest during the attacks. "I did not kill anyone," Simmons told the judge. "Everything exploded in my face, I didn't know what to do. There was no way I could fight Milton Jones. He had a knife." Claiming he "went so far as to try to save" Father Bissonette's life, without explaining how, Simmons said he had "regrets and sympathies" for the families of both priests and his own family. Simmons also insisted that his upbringing propelled him into a world where "it was all about survival" and that he had become "a coward" forced to help satisfy the demands of more powerful associates. "I lived for others," Simmons insisted.

Jeffrey A. Sellers, one of Jones' court-assigned attorneys, told the judge Jones had asked him to also express his "regrets and sympathy." "Something happened that he got caught up in and just did not know how to extricate himself," Sellers told the judge. Jones claims Simmons began the fatal attacks, telling Father Bissonette "you're going to meet your maker," Sellers told the judge. Jones doesn't deny his involvement in the crimes but insists his "sole motivation" was money. Jones, the defense attorney said, "is a product of a system that did not work."

Outside the courtroom, Sellers and John J. Carney III, Jones' other lawyer, and George R. Blair and J. Glenn Davis, Simmons' lawyers, said the convictions will be automatically appealed. Both defendants are indigent, and state law requires free legal services for the indigent. Joanne Lucas, Father Bissonette's sister, and his brother, Raymond Bissonette, and Monsignor Herlihy's niece, Nan Gallivan, all said they didn't believe Simmons' protestations of innocence. They also questioned the sincerity of both defendants' courtroom claims of remorse. "They certainly didn't say that a year and a half ago, and I just feel that if they were remorseful they would have said something at that time," Ms. Gallivan said. "I did not see a speck of emotion in either one," Mrs. Lucas said. Bissonette said the deaths of the priests had to be turned into "a positive force" to improve social conditions that they sought to correct. Bissonette said he doubted Simmons' claims of innocence because "in the past, he had something of a history of being less than truthful" with his priest brother "and others who were his benefactors." Bissonette said the harsh prison terms didn't make the families of the slain priests happy. "Nobody feels good about this," he said. But he said the prison terms were "something that had to be done."






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