As Joan Porco lay clinging to life on her blood-soaked bed, Bethlehem police Det. Christopher Bowdish began asking if her sons had anything to do with her attack.
First, the veteran officer asked if older son Jonathan had caused her injuries and the mother gave a nod he interpreted as a negative. Bowdish then asked if younger son Christopher was responsible and the critically injured woman nodded in the affirmative, the detective testified at trial.
Joan Porco later said she had no recollection of who perpetrated the savage attack that killed her husband, Peter, on Nov. 15, 2004, nor did she remember her interaction with Bowdish several hours later. Yet his testimony served as a critical component of the Albany County district attorney’s successful prosecution of Christopher Porco on charges of murder and attempted murder, defense attorney Terence Kindlon told justices of the state’s Court of Appeals on Tuesday in seeking to overturn Christopher Porco’s conviction.
Joan Porco’s head nod was mentioned four times in the prosecution’s opening statement, three times in witness testimony and a dozen times in closing arguments. And without this testimony, Kindlon believes the prosecution’s case would ultimately unravel.
“This is a big target with a small bullseye,” he said, characterizing the prosecution’s case before the justices.
During her testimony in 2006, Joan Porco said the last memory she had was going to the Bethlehem YMCA on the day before the attacks. The next thing she recalled was waking up at Albany Medical Center and having “difficulty making connections.”
Kindlon argued any testimony about Joan Porco’s nod was inadmissible at Christopher Porco’s trial because she has no memory of the moments surrounding her attack and couldn’t be cross-examined about what she meant by the nods. He made a similar argument during Christopher Porco’s appeal to the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, and the justices ultimately agreed.
But in upholding the jury’s decision, the mid-level court ruled there was more than enough evidence to convict Christopher Porco without the nod. They argued admitting the nod as evidence “was harmless in light of the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt.”
On Tuesday, some of the justices seemed to consider Joan Porco’s nod a more significant component of the conviction. Justice Eugene Pigott suggested jurors might not have been able to see beyond damning testimony from the defendant’s mother, even if she didn’t deliver it on the stand.
“When a mother accuses her son of this type of crime, it’s huge,” he said.
Prosecutor Chris Horn played down the importance of Joan Porco’s nod and said more than enough evidence exists to prove her son’s guilt. That evidence included video footage of Christopher Porco’s yellow Jeep leaving his college campus at the University of Rochester several hours before the attack; a Thruway toll card showing he was in Albany on the morning of his father’s murder, a card that later tested positive for his DNA; and a deactivation code punched into the home’s security alarm that was known by the Porco’s two sons, the older of whom was deployed aboard a U.S. Navy submarine at the time.
“The jurors said they didn’t even consider the nod,” he told the justices.
Porco was convicted of the brutal murder of his 53-year-old father, Peter, and the attempted murder of his mother, Joan, now 60. The parents were attacked with an ax as they slept in their bed.
Joan Porco was severely maimed and left for dead in the couple’s bedroom; the ax was found discarded nearby. Peter Porco was found in the blood-covered portico of the home, having died of massive head injuries sustained from the ax.
Due to the publicity surrounding the case, Christopher Porco’s trial was moved to Orange County in June 2006. After more than a month of testimony, he was convicted on both counts.
Now 28, Christopher Porco is serving 46 years to life at the state’s Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, a maximum security prison outside Plattsburgh. He is not eligible for parole until 2052.
Both Kindlon and Horn were allotted 20 minutes to make their arguments in the case. The justices are expected to return a decision in six to eight weeks.
Justice Victoria Graffeo recused herself from the hearing, acknowledging her friendship with Peter Porco during law school. Prior to his death, Peter Porco worked as a law clerk for the Appellate Division.
After the hearing, Kindlon expressed optimism that his argument will persuade the court to grant Porco a new trial. If the appeal is successful, he’ll try to move the case as far away from Albany as possible; if unsuccessful, he intends to challenge the conviction in federal court.
“We will go to federal court if we need to,” he said.
Horn was satisfied he successfully argued against Porco’s appeal. He was equally confident of the evidence pointing to Porco’s guilt, with or without his mother’s nod.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Beyond a reasonable doubt.”
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Categories: Schenectady County