ALBANY — In a closely divided decision, New York's highest court has upheld the dismissal of the triple attempted murder conviction of a Town of Lockport man.
In a 4 to 3 ruling, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier decision by the State Supreme Court Appellate Division Fourth Department that reversed a jury verdict that found Benito Lendof-Gonzalez guilty on three counts of first- and second-degree attempted murder.
The ruling, written by Judge Paul G. Feinman, found that Niagara County prosecutors failed to provide sufficient evidence to support Lendof-Gonzalez's conviction. Feinman wrote that prosecutors "failed to prove that defendant and his feigned confederate took any actual step toward accomplishing defendant's plan to kill his wife and mother-in-law beyond mere conversations and planning."
The majority of the court asserted that its standard of guilt of an "attempt to commit a crime" is that a person must come "dangerously close" to committing the intended crime.
It was the same finding and standard that the Appellate Division panel applied in Lendof-Gonzalez's appeal of his conviction.
The dissenting judges, led by Judge Jenny Rivera, found that prosecutors had presented sufficient evidence to the jury.
"The majority reaches (its) conclusion by engaging in a weight of the evidence analysis that questions the viability of the defendant's murder for hire scheme," Rivera wrote. "But our law is clear that we may consider only whether the evidence was legally sufficient, not whether the evidence was factually persuasive, to support defendant's conviction."
Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek expressed disappointment with the high court's decision.
"The facts of this case have always generated considerable legal debate. Nevertheless, I'm proud of the extensive work put into this case and the seriousness in which it was pursued," she said.
Lendof-Gonzalez was convicted, after a trial in July 2017, of first- and second-degree attempted murder and criminal solicitation for the scheme. A former jail inmate testified that Lendof-Gonzalez offered him his house in exchange for killing his wife, Kayleigh Schmidt, and her mother, Corey Hildebrand, by injecting them with heroin and poison.
The scheme was hatched in the Niagara County Jail in May 2016.
After his conviction, Lendof-Gonzalez was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
He appealed his conviction to the Appellate Division Fourth Department, which ruled there had been insufficient evidence presented by prosecutors and overturned Lendof-Gonzalez's conviction.
"The evidence establishes only that defendant planned the crimes, discussed them with the inmate in the next cell and with that inmate’s girlfriend, and exchanged notes about them. ... The evidence fails to establish that defendant took any action that brought the crime close to completion," the appellate court justices ruled.
Despite the Court of Appeals ruling, Lendof-Gonzalez is expected to remain behind bars because, in addition to the attempted murder charges, he was convicted of second-degree criminal solicitation and sentenced to 2-1/3 to seven years in prison on that charge.
And in January 2018, Lendof-Gonzalez was sentenced to another 2-1/3-to-seven-year term for second-degree criminal solicitation in a separate murder-for-hire plot. Prosecutors said Lendof-Gonzalez tried to arrange the murder of a Niagara County corrections officer in September 2016, while en route to a county court appearance, so that he could escape from an inmate transport vehicle.