Just before leaving the Schenectady County Courthouse earlier this month, Sharon Russell ran into Philip Mueller.
Minutes earlier, the woman had delivered an emotional impact statement at the sentencing of her son Danny Russell’s killer.
Composed again afterward, the mother encountered Mueller, the dogged, leave-no-stone-unturned Schenectady County prosecutor who helped make that moment of cathersis possible.
She gave him a hug. “Thank you so much,” she said.
Mueller has been no stranger to such moments over his more than 25 years in the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office.
He’s convicted nearly two dozen killers after trial in that span and presented cases to seemingly countless others that led to the killers admitting their guilt without going to trial.
In each, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney recalled recently, Mueller put in countless hours to ensure the truth came out.
“People outside the system don’t realize how many cases he’s done, but more importantly, how hard he’s worked,” Carney said of his chief prosecutor. “Weekends, nights, for years and years and years and it’s all because he believes very passionately in the importance of what we do and of getting it right.”
Mueller, 62, is set to retire next month, leaving behind a long record of success, convicting killer after killer and doing so in his own methodical, thorough way.
Along the way, he’s broken new legal ground, won awards and led to countless family members being able to face their loved one’s killer in court.
Mueller first came to Schenectady for school. The Little Falls-native graduated from Union College in 1975 before going on to Cornell Law School.
While in Schenectady, Mueller met fellow undergraduate Carney, and the two forged a friendship that continued years after they went their separate ways.
Mueller, who eventually became the go-to prosecutor for some of Schenectady’s most complex and vile murder cases, started out in corporate law, working as a civil litigator.
He didn’t like it.
“I wasn’t happy doing it,” Mueller recalled in an interview earlier this month. “Good work. Nice people. Treated me well, but it just wasn’t a good fit for me, civil litigation. I think in seven years I tried one jury trial.”
Carney recalled Mueller eying the prosecutor’s path. If Mueller died then as a corporate attorney, Carney recalled Mueller saying, his greatest accomplishment would be that he successfully delayed a piece corporate litigation for three years.
After Carney won Schenectady County’s top prosecutor job in the 1989 election, Mueller followed, leaving his highly paid Boston job for a more fulfilling one.
With the Schenectady County District Attorney’s office, Mueller soon graduated from prosecuting drug cases to prosecuting murder cases.
By 1996, Mueller found himself in the thick of perhaps his most complex case of all, the prosecution of Charles Toland, the man accused of the sadistic killing of Schenectady resident Jackie Polomaine, and suspected in a similar killing of Paulette Dempster in Montgomery County.
Mueller successfully argued for the inclusion of Dempster’s killing in Toland’s trial for Polomaine’s death.
Over eight weeks in the summer of 1996, Mueller methodically presented the proof of Toland’s guilt. Then, after a 3.5-hour Mueller closing argument, the jury took just six hours to convict.
Representing Toland throughout that case was attorney Michael Horan. Mueller and Horan faced off several times more in the two decades since, including in Mueller’s recent prosecution of Danny Russell’s killer, Gammen Knight.
Horan said he knows Knight made the right choice for him in pleading guilty and avoiding trial, but Horan also lamented not being able to face Mueller at trial one final time.
“It’s just been a great experience trying cases with Phil,” Horan said of Mueller. “He certainly is one of the best. He’s clearly one of the most diligent and well-prepared.”
Horan used the term “Muellerized” to describe Mueller’s lengthy questioning of investigators to learn as much as possible about a case, and to describe Mueller’s complete command of the facts in each case he’s tried.
Mullerized trials tend to bring both lengthy proceedings and lengthy prison sentences.
Mueller, the man who has been the face of so many Schenectady County murder prosecutions over the years, actually says his style is born out of fear — fear of being caught off guard.
“The idea of standing in a courtroom in front of a jury and being surprised by some piece of the facts that I hadn’t thought about or hadn’t looked into, or being unable to respond when someone gets up and lies or just being unable to answer the questions that a jury would logically have,” Mueller said, “that’s a scary thought to me.”
So, Mueller always set about to answer those questions for juries, and himself, taking the cases police, detectives and investigators put together, learning every aspect of them and prosecuting his case.
He also constantly assessed potential witnesses, making sure the accounts they give him are the truth. Mueller doesn’t like being lied to.
“I think lawyering is more about thoroughness and stamina than it is about brilliance,” Mueller said. “Brilliance is a nice thing, but it’s no substitute for preparation and attention to detail.”
Richard Giardino saw Mueller’s attention to detail in action while presiding over some of Mueller’s murder trials as a County Court judge.
Now retired from the bench and serving as Fulton County’s sheriff, Giardino referenced his own laid-back judicial style in joking that Mueller’s thorough approach “posed a great challenge to my attention span.”
In all seriousness, Giardino also called Mueller a “great asset” to both the district attorney’s office and to the community.
In the many criminal trials over which he presided, Giardino said “I can truly say that no attorney was better prepared than Phil Mueller.”
Married, Mueller said he’s not sure what he will do in retirement other than enjoy not having a schedule. But he also wonders how he’ll deal with not being tied into the community the way he is now.
Asked for cases that stand out to him in his career, Mueller offered two, which he said stood out for the exceptional evil of the crimes. He noted that’s a term he doesn’t use lightly.
One is Toland’s 1996 conviction. The other case Mueller cited is the 2004 first-degree murder conviction of Stacy Adamson.
On Mueller’s lead, the Schenectady County Court jury convicted the man of beating to death 52-year-old Schenectady resident Daniel Jamison in a 24-hour February 2003 bid to blackmail him.
When the jury came back with its guilty verdict in April 2004, Jamison’s brother Arthur Jamison could only nod his head in approval as both anger and sorrow welled up inside him, he recalled afterward.
Last week, when told of Mueller’s impending retirement, Arthur Jamison recalled an informative and respectful prosecutor who kept him posted on the stages of the case and saw it through to conviction on all counts.
The case to put his brother’s killer behind bars, Jamison said, showed the kind of prosecutor and person Mueller is.
“That just really provided closure for myself,” Jamison said of the verdict and Mueller’s work, “and again reflected on his ability to do his job.”
Reach Gazette reporter Steven Cook at 395-3122, [email protected] or @ByStevenCook on Twitter.