Exactly three years after a Suffolk County jury convicted John White in the fatal shooting of a Selden teen, outgoing Gov. David A. Paterson ordered White freed from an upstate prison and he returned home to Long Island Thursday in time for Christmas.
White, 57, who was found guilty in the racially charged Aug. 9 2006, shooting of Daniel Cicciaro Jr., 17, thanked God and the governor after making the journey from Mount McGregor Correctional Facility, the medium-security facility in upstate Saratoga County where he had been incarcerated.
He began his incarceration in July and served 168 days in the state system of his 2-to-4-year sentence for second-degree manslaughter and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon. White also was held for about 40 days in the Suffolk County jail.
"It's a blessing," the former asphalt company foreman said with a weak smile before mounting the steps of his Miller Place home.
Paterson, in a statement announcing his decision, said, "Our society strives to be just, but the pursuit of justice is a difficult and arduous endeavor. While the incident and Mr. White's trial engendered much controversy and comment, and varying assessments of justice were perceived, its most common feature was heartbreak. My decision today may be an affront to some and a joy to others, but my objective is only to seek to ameliorate the profound suffering that occurred as a result of this tragic event."
The governor did not exercise his power to issue a pardon, so White's conviction stands; commutation of his sentence to time served will be void if he breaks the law again. Without the commutation, his earliest parole date would have been Feb. 15, 2012, according to the state.
Daniel Cicciaro Sr. and Joanne Cicciaro, the slain teen's parents - who expressed deep anger in March 2008 at White's sentencing, saying he should have drawn more prison time - declined to comment as friends and supporters visited them Thursday. But Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota lambasted Paterson's handling of the case.
"The governor should have had the decency and the compassion to at least contact the victim's family to allow them to be heard before commuting the defendant's sentence," Spota said in a statement. The district attorney learned of White's release Thursday morning, sources close to the case said. Spota was the one who told Joanne Cicciaro of White's release, said her attorney, Jim McDonaugh of Lindenhurst.
"No one from the governor's office ever reached out to my client or her family during whatever deliberation was occurring," McDonaugh said.
White said he learned of his impending release at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Thursday, events moved rapidly: The prison's release process was under way by 8 a.m., and White walked out of Mount McGregor at 9:23 a.m. On the car ride home with his wife, Sonia, and Michael Greys of the group 100 Black Men In Law Enforcement Who Care, he sang spirituals. At 1:30 p.m., he was at his home on Independence Way.
The fatal confrontation was set in motion after a Sound Beach party where police say alcohol was present. Daniel Cicciaro Jr. and his friends piled into cars to confront White's son, Aaron, over an Internet message they mistakenly thought he had sent, threatening to rape a girl at the party. John White, alerted by his son, emerged from his house with a loaded gun and ordered the teens to leave. Within three minutes, Cicciaro had been shot in his face. It surfaced much later that another youth, pretending to be Aaron White, had written the Internet message.
From the start, the case was inflamed by competing perceptions of bias: White's defense claimed he was defending himself from a "lynch mob," while Cicciaro's father believed White would have received much harsher punishment had he not been cast a victim of racism.
hailed Paterson's decision while voicing sympathy for the Cicciaro family's loss.
"The right to defend one's home, family and ultimately one's self is at the heart of our history and law," said the Rev. Roderick Pearson, who was chairman of Suffolk's African-American advisory board at the time of the shooting.
Amber Pannhurst, 20, a graduate of Miller Place High School who knows many of the slain Cicciaro's old classmates, called Paterson's decision "ridiculous." "I don't think anyone deserves a free ride to get off on what their punishment is," Pannhurst said. "I think he should have had to finish it."
White entered prison after an appellate court upheld his conviction and the state's highest court refused to hear the case. Spota noted that the appeals court found "ample support for the jury's conclusion that a reasonable person in the defendant's position . . . would not have believed that the use of deadly force was necessary."
Suffolk police said they have increased patrols around the White home and taken other measures to assure the family is left undisturbed.
The commutation was the 13th time that Paterson had used his powers as governor to issue pardons, clemencies or commutations of sentences.
"On August 9, 2006, a young life was lost, beliefs were challenged, lives were ruined and a community became distraught," Paterson said of the White case. "No one intended this, yet everyone suffered. ... The action I am taking today is one of understanding, forgiveness and hope, which I believe are the essential components of justice."
The Cicciaros won a settlement in 2009 in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Whites and the couple who hosted the Sound Beach party. The amount of that settlement was undisclosed.
But Cicciaro Sr. shared one message on a banner outside his home.
"God Bless Dano Jr.," it read. "May he rest in peace."