Analysis

The Wrongful Conviction of Anthony Capozzi: The Hindsight of DNA Technology

by William J. Morgan, Jr.©

On September 29, 2006, a woman named Joan Diver from Clarence, a suburb of Buffalo in Western New York, was found unclothed, beaten, and strangled to death on bike path in the Town of Newstead, a popular attraction for bikers and joggers (Becker, 2006). Her husband, Steven Diver, stated that he had seen her vehicle parked near the bike path on the morning of the crime and provided a DNA sample to eliminate him as a suspect. While the Diver case was lacking sexual assault, the killer left a DNA sample behind that conclusively linked him to the murder. The modus operandi of the killer was familiar to detectives from cases of serial rapes and murders 1986-1994, which included nine rapes and two murders. The killer preferred white females, stalked parks, secluded areas, and bike paths in the Western New York area, attacked the victim from behind, and left a signature of double ligature marks from a chain on the necks of victims (Becker, 2006; Warner³, 2007). The DNA and modus operandi matched cases from as far back as 1983 where a 13-year-old girl was raped as she rode along railroad tracks on her way to school; the incident occurred long before DNA evidence was available and where the rapist-killer left DNA at 8 of the rapes/murders (Warner & Becker, 2006). The other women killed were Christine Mazur and Linda Yalem; the latter was killed on September 29, 1990 as anniversary dates are important to serial killers.

A profile of the killer created by criminal investigators revealed an organized, arrogant, nonpsychotic, methodical, meticulous, plotting individual, who left few clues behind, is white, and now in his 40s or 50s (Becker¹, 2007; Warner & Becker, 2006). Most important was that he was becoming increasingly violent. The sample left behind by the killer, which turned out to be a drop of sweat left in the vehicle of Joan Diver (Warner², 2007), let the people of Buffalo know that the Bike Path Killer-Rapist had returned. Because of a lapse in attacks since 1994, officials thought that the killer may have been incarcerated and the most recent murder due to release of an inmate. A recently enacted law requires all felons, including probationers, to submit to the DNA state databank that attempted to match to all DNA samples provided, and yielded no results; all parolees who had not provided a court-mandated sample were  pursued (Becker, 2006).

In January of 2007, the eating utensils of Altemio Sanchez were collected from a local Buffalo restaurant where the suspect ate and processed for DNA; the samples matched that from the crime scenes of the Bike Path killer/rapist (Gryta¹, 2007; Thompson, 2007). Sanchez was charged with the death of Christine Mazur, Linda Yalem, and Joan Diver; these are assertions that he vehemently denies (Gryta², 2007; Warner¹, 2007). Because DNA was only recovered from the vehicle of Diver and not her body, the case is circumstantial (Gryta¹, 2007). The attorney of Sanchez commented that the admissibly of evidence collected, and when, would be an issue brought before the court, and was expected to be the main issue. However, because of a five-year statute of limitations according to New York State law, the rapes cannot be prosecuted although five of the rapes and all murders were linked to Sanchez. (Warner², 2007). Friends and family portrayed Sanchez as friendly guy that would be least expected to commit a crime of this magnitude. A former profiler for the FBI said that is the psychopathology of serial killers: normalcy, sanity, and legitimately nice. For example, in the mid 1980s Sanchez was a little league baseball coach, volunteer for local charities, and known for his kindness and generosity. During that time, Sanchez was a suspect in the rapes but dropped for lack of evidence.

In 1987, Anthony Capozzi was convicted of two rapes in Delaware Park based on eyewitness testimony, the suspicious activity of a man matching his description by a former police officer, the identification of the suspect in police line-ups, a match in blood type of the offender, and strikingly similar facial features and build (Becker³, 2007; Warner³, 2007). Sentenced to 11 2/3 to 35 years for the rapes, he served 21½ years before investigators had their doubts about the conviction; Capozzi spent that long in prison because he maintained his innocence and refused to accept responsibility for the crimes. The Erie County DA, Frank Clark, cited that physical or DNA evidence to overturn such a conviction was lacking and because the conviction was based mainly on eyewitness identification (Warner³, 2007). DNA testing was not available or in its' infancy at the time of the crimes and conviction (Warner4, 2007).

Investigators looking over the case files discovered that indeed DNA evidence did exist from the Delaware Park rapes stored, preserved, and catalogued at the Erie County Medical Center before the use of computers to accumulate such evidence (Becker², 2007). The discovered evidence soundly exonerated Anthony Capozzi of the crime and DNA matched that of Altemio Sanchez. In early April, an Erie County Judge vacated the charges and dismissed the case in the interest of justice, thus, setting Capozzi free after incarceration for over two decades ("Judge vacates," 2007). To avoid a trial based on the overwhelming physical evidence, Altemio Sanchez pled guilty to the three murders on May 16, 2007 and his attorney likened his impulse control problems and animosity toward women to a drug or alcohol addict (Beebe & Becker², 2007).

Conclusion

The case of the Bike Path Rapist/killer spanned over two decades without a conviction and the conviction of an innocent man based on multiple types of evidence. A lack of DNA technology at the time of the crime made it possible for a man to be wrongly convicted and exonerated. This is also a case where DNA convicted a man for terrorizing the women of Western New York for two decades. The advent and improvements in DNA technology proved to exonerate those wrongly convicted, process evidence from suspects or eliminate potential ones, focus on those in the DNA computer bank when a match is made in criminal cases, and store evidence in cases where offenders have not been identified. DNA evidence has been the vanguard to exonerations of wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice, especially where witness misidentification and/or the misuse of informants was the foremost reason for a wrongful conviction.

William J. Morgan, Jr.©
45 Oak Street
Buffalo, NY 14203
(716) 851-1246

William J. Morgan Jr. is ABD at Capella University and a criminal justice professor at Erie Community College.

References:

Becker, M. (2006, November 19). Felon's DNA being sifted in search for killer-rapist: Parolees hunted down for not giving sample. The Buffalo News, C1.

Becker, M.¹ (2007, January 21). Two live in juxtaposition: How did Altemio C. Sanchez, the ordinary guy, turn out to be charged as the bike path killer. The Buffalo News,    A1, A2.

Becker, M.² (2007, March 29). Newfound evidence that exonerated Capozzi stored at ECMC all along: Testing available sin '90s: DNA from '83, '84 rapes matches    Sanchez, DA says. The Buffalo News, A1, A2.

Becker, M.³ (2007, March 30). How Capozzi's case went terribly wrong. The Buffalo News, A1, A2.

Beebe, M. & Becker, M.¹ (2007, March 31). Handling of Capozzi evidence spurs feud: ECMC officials, Clark at odds over blame for evidence snafu. The Buffalo News,    A1, A2.

Beebe, M. & Becker, M.² (2007, May 17). Sanchez admits he's a killer. The Buffalo News, A1, A4.

Gryta, M.¹ (2007, March 2). Sanchez indictment expected in Diver case: Alleged bike path killer tied by DNA to 3rd victim). The Buffalo News, A1.

Gryta, M.² (2007, March 13). Sanchez pleads not guilty to 3 slayings: Opposes on trial to cover all. The Buffalo News, B1.

Judge vacates Capozzi's rape convictions (2007, April 2). The Buffalo News, A8. 

Thompson, C. (2007, January 23). Man accused of being "bike path rapist" pleads not guilty. The Buffalo News, A1.

Warner, G. & Becker, M. (2006, November 18). Bike path rapist's first attack may have been in '84: Details of girl's rape identical to others, but DNA was unavailable.    The Buffalo News, pp. A-1, A-2.

Warner, G.¹ (2007, January 17). Alleged bike path killer insists he's innocent: attorney may seek new venue issue of fair trial is raised, separate DNA tests sought. The    Buffalo    News, p. B1.
Warner, G.² (2007, January 19). Sanchez is facing indictment in 2 killings: Grand jury hears evidence in bike path slayings. The Buffalo News, pp, A1, A2.

Warner, G.³ (2007, January 28). Jailed man may be innocent: Delaware Park rapes that sent man to prison bear striking similarities to bike path attacks. The Buffalo    News, pp. A1, A2.

Warner, G. 4 (2007, March 4). Purchase at hardware store may link Sanchez to latest bike path murder: Lack of DNA on or near Joan Diver's body mean case hinges on    circumstantial evidence. The Buffalo News, pp. A1, A2.



Recent Cases
Eyewitness ID

Truth in Justice