Schenectady County

Man facing new trial in Schenectady diner shootings rejects plea bargain

The man facing a new trial in the 2006 Olympic Diner shooting on Friday rejected a plea deal.

The man facing a new trial in the 2006 Olympic Diner shooting on Friday rejected a plea deal.

The original conviction of Michael Estella, 25, was tossed out over a post-verdict racist remark by one of the trial jurors.

Estella also asked for a new judge for his retrial, arguing that the judge in the first trial had already formed an opinion on the case and unfairly ruled on defense objections voiced during the trial.

He was offered a range of somewhere between 15 and 18 years in state prison in exchange for a guilty plea Friday.

That offer came from Acting Schenectady County Court Judge Richard Giardino. Prosecutor Amy Burock had offered 20 years.

Giardino noted that Estella could face a far longer sentence if he is convicted again.

But Estella flatly rejected both offers, instead saying again that he didn’t do anything wrong.

“I’m innocent, I’ve told you that 1,000 times,” Estella said before confirming that he was rejecting the offer and wanted a trial.

Estella who is black, was convicted in September 2008 after a two-week trial that saw many witnesses to the shooting reluctant to come forward. The jury, which had two black members, found that Estella was the one who fired into the diner filled with 20 people on the morning of Aug. 6, 2006.

Three people were wounded, but all survived.

Estella had faced up to 25 to 47 years in state prison as a result of the guilty verdict. He remains in custody pending resolution of the case.

The juror’s comment came after the verdict as prosecutors were investigating defense post-verdict motions.

Defense attorney Adam Parisi made standard motions to set the verdict aside. In one, he argued that one of the jurors acted as a weapons expert during deliberations. Giardino, the trial judge, denied that motion. But Burock attempted to investigate that claim and she contacted the juror, referred to as “Juror 6,” by phone.

She reported to the court that Juror 6 told her he was distracted in court. When asked why, the juror said he was distracted by Burock’s “captivating beauty” and that she was “just like a real lawyer.”

The juror, who is white, responded to whether the weapons issue affected his verdict, “I guess I based my [decision] on race.” But he also got key facts of the case wrong, saying that Estella was identified by only one person, when in fact he was identified by several.

Giardino noted that after sitting through the initial trial, he found that the evidence of guilt was “overwhelming.” Nonetheless, Giardino wrote that he felt compelled by the seriousness of the comment to order a new trial.

The district attorney’s office appealed the ruling, but lost in the Appellate Division. The case is now on course for retrial in April.

What might change that date is the defense’s request for a different judge. Giardino is scheduled to do so, but he said Friday he would consider the request.

Estella himself argued to the judge that he believed that the prosecutor Burock “bullied” Giardino into changing rulings on objections at trial.

Estella also felt that Giardino’s pronouncement in the post-verdict ruling that he found the evidence of guilt overwhelming to be worrisome. “I’m kind of nervous with you,” Estella said.

Burock opposed the motion, noting the judge doesn’t find guilt or innocence, the jury does.

Giardino clarified that his comment on overwhelming evidence of guilt pertained to the first trial. The new trial is just that, he said, a new trial.

Regarding Estella’s perception of adverse rulings, Giardino pointed out one ruling in Estella’s favor, the only one that ultimately counted.

“Another judge could have looked at [the juror issue] and said it didn’t matter,” Giardino said. “Regardless of the evidence, I said I don’t think you received a fair trial.”

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