During triple-murder trial, unlikely bonds formed
In the celebratory hubbub earlier this month after two men were convicted of torturing and slaughtering three people in a Central Islip house, the parents of one victim shared a hug with one of the killer's lawyers.
The unusual gesture capped a remarkably friendly and occasionally affectionate relationship throughout the trial between the victims' parents and defense attorneys.
Murder trials -- especially protracted ones like the four-month marathon that ended in the convictions of Hasan Vaughan and Thomas Singletary -- force people who could be expected to be hostile to each other into daily contact. At best, defense attorneys and victims' families usually treat each other with wary civility.
That wasn't the case on the fourth floor of the Suffolk County criminal courthouse in Riverhead, where Vaughan and Singletary, both 36, were ultimately found guilty of shooting, stabbing and strangling Vaughan's girlfriend, Katrice Daniels, 31, of Central Islip; her sister, Mykier Daniels, 28; and Mykier Daniels' friend, Louis Calixto Jr., 19, in August 2009.
Prosecutors say Vaughan sought revenge against the victims for stealing his laptop and jewelry, and that he recruited Singletary to help.
Despite the crimes' gruesomeness, a friendly relationship developed between the victims' parents; Vaughan's attorney, William Keahon of Hauppauge; and Singletary's attorney, Dan Russo of Westhampton Beach.
Sandra Daniels, mother of the two sisters, said she made a deliberate decision to avoid being angry.
"It's kept me planted," she said. "I had to let the anger go. It was making me sick."
That and her ability to keep separate the men who killed her children from the men who represented them allowed her to be friendly with the lawyers, she said.
"They're human, too," she said. "They have to do their job and I realize that. They're doing what they have to do."
Victims' families will always be cautious around a defense attorney, Russo said, but the length of the trial may have helped break down some mistrust, as did steps he and Keahon took at the start of the case.
"I've always made the attempt to go over and introduce myself and explain what I do," Russo said, calling it an attempt to defuse tension. These families may have been more receptive to such an overture, he said.
"They are pretty real people," Russo said. "They're not so blind to the need for defense lawyers."
He said the fact that his own father was murdered when he was a boy helps him empathize with victims, even as he works for defendants.
"Not a day goes by when I'm on a case like this when I don't remember what my grandmother went through when those detectives told her that her son was dead," Russo said.
After the verdict, Keahon broke away from talking to jurors to hug Calixto's parents, Louis Calixto Sr. and Yolanda Dejesus.
Keahon said in his 40 years handling murder cases, he's never experienced a relationship with victims like this, even when he was a homicide prosecutor himself. All the credit for that belongs to these families, he said.
"Notwithstanding their loss, they conducted themselves with dignity every day," Keahon said. "They made a point of talking to me every day."
During the trial, Keahon and Sandra Daniels supplied each other with cough drops and mints.
They all spent time laughing and talking during breaks in the trial. One day Russo was laughing uproariously as Calixto and Dejesus, both natives of Puerto Rico, regaled him with stories about how Puerto Ricans behave on their island.
A few days later, Calixto jokingly asked Keahon whether he could help if he got a parking ticket in the courthouse lot.
"Don't worry about it," Keahon said, laughing. "I'm your lawyer now."
Like Keahon, Assistant District Attorney Robert Biancavilla credited the families for the mood of the trial.
"These are two wonderful families who rose to the occasion," he said. "They rose above it."
Although disappointed that his client was convicted, Russo said he wishes the Daniels and Calixto survivors well.
"If this verdict gives them some kind of peace, then so be it," he said.