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What Were They Thinking?

Rensselaer County district attorney drops questionable case

In 2005, Bryan Berry and Terrence Battiste were charged by federal prosecutors for armed robbery in connection with their activities with a gang who robbed area drug dealers in 2001 and 2002. In 2002, around the time this gang was operating, Samuel Holley and his girlfriend, Arica Schneider, were found murdered in their Brunswick Road apartment. Holley was an alleged drug dealer, so it made sense to federal investigators that the double murder was a botched robbery that ended badly.

Fred Rench, a lawyer for Berry, said that federal investigators informed him in 2005 that Berry and Battiste were the prime suspects in the murders. Both men have maintained their innocence since the beginning, even when threatened with the death penalty and offered deals by Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak.

“These men were never going to make a deal,” said Rench. “Bill Pericak threatened to invoke the death penalty in this case, and each guy said ‘No, you’ve got to kill me.’ ” Rench said it is very rare for codefendants to refuse a deal to testify against one another in a case where the possibility of the death penalty exists.

Pericak stopped pursuing the case against Berry and Battiste and it was turned over to the Rensselaer County district attorney’s office, which at the time was headed by Patricia DeAngelis. Her office indicted the pair in 2007, based largely on the testimony of a jailhouse informant named Izel Dickerson. However, his testimony in 2007 did not match his testimony during pretrial hearings in January of this year, when he was called as a witness by the defense. This discrepancy was the basis for the current district attorney, Richard McNally, dropping the charges against Berry and Battiste last Friday.

Other facts surrounding Dickerson’s testimony call into question why he was used as a witness by DeAngelis’ office in the first place. Dickerson told prosecutors in 2007 that Berry confessed to the murders while they were incarcerated together in a Washington County jail. But during the time the confession allegedly happened, Dickerson was already testifying for the district attorney’s office in a separate murder trial in which he received time off his sentence for a host of convictions. Also, according to Rench, Dickerson was charged for crimes in Rensselaer County, but somehow wound up in Berry’s cell in Washington County where he eventually testified against Berry. Given these facts, Rench called the use of Dickerson’s testimony “disturbing.”

“At the exact same moment that Izel Dickerson is bunkmates with Mr. Berry in Washington County, Mr. Dickerson is being debriefed by the Rensselaer County district attorney’s office on another homicide,” said Rench. “That’s a little bit curious.”

McNally said that while he doesn’t suspect anyone in the investigation did anything sinister, the use of Dickerson’s testimony was something that “raised eyebrows.”

“I had some real difficulty with that when it was brought to my attention,” said McNally, but he had no choice but to take over, as years of work and thousands of pages of documents were compiled during the course of the investigation.

“Would I have presented this case to a grand jury? I don’t know, I wasn’t there at that time,” said McNally. “Twenty-twenty hindsight tells me probably not. But I wasn’t there when that decision was made. It was Patricia DeAngelis and her office.” DeAngelis could not be reached for comment.

Another compelling point brought by the defense was that the murder weapons were steak knives found at the scene, likely taken from Holley’s kitchen, which both McNally and Rench characterized as “weapons of opportunity.” Murder by steak knife does not fit with the MO of the gang that was robbing drug dealers in 2001 and 2002. Rench said he believes the murderer was one “crack-crazed” individual whom Holley knew and sold drugs to in the past.

The case against Berry and Battiste was also dropped because a suspect who evaded detection for eight years, Michael Mosely, was identified in February of this year, four days before jury selection was to begin in the trial of Battiste.

“The reason why these things happen is most jurors have difficulty believing that so many people could be pressured into lying,” said Terrence Battiste’s attorney, Trey Smith. “In my opinion, to indict that case was prosecutorial malpractice.”

“Obviously the case against Battiste and Berry is dismissed,” said McNally. “But the case against Michael Mosely gets better every day.”

—Daniel Fitzsimmons

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