The possibility of federal prosecutors seeking the death penalty in the arson that killed four people last month has led to the appointment of a new defense attorney with extensive experience in capital cases.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Christian F. Hummel on Thursday granted a request from assistant federal public defender Timothy Austin to have William T. Easton of Rochester added to the case as a second defense attorney representing arson suspect Robert A. Butler.
Federal prosecutors did not oppose the request, but Hummel initially did. Hummel noted that Easton was not based in the district and that there were other death penalty-qualified attorneys here.
After a conference held Thursday, though, Hummel reconsidered, and granted the request.
Easton, of the Rochester firm Easton Thompson Kasperek Shiffrin, previously worked in the New York state Capital Defender Office for more than a decade, according to his firm bio.
Butler, 27, of Saratoga Springs, was formally charged federally earlier this month with one count of arson causing death. If convicted, he faces the possibility of the death penalty or life in prison without parole. Prosecutors have not said whether they intend to seek death.
Killed in the May 2 fire at 438 Hulett St. were father David Terry, 32, and children Layah Terry, 3, Michael Terry, 2, and Donavan Duell, 11 months.
The only child to survive was 5-year-old Safyre Terry, a girl described as her father’s princess. Earlier this month, family members said Safyre remained under sedation at Westchester Medical Center but had begun to breathe on her own.
Butler is accused of setting fire to the stairwell leading to the second-floor apartment as part of an ongoing argument with David Terry that began days earlier, when Terry threw him out of the house for hitting the mother of the children, Jennica Duell.
The federal defender in a possible death penalty case in Syracuse last month sought Easton’s assistance in a similar role — presenting mitigating factors to the U.S. Department of Justice, should prosecutors seek permission to ultimately seek the death penalty.
In Butler’s case, prosecutors have said they have yet to make that decision. The final determination, should prosecutors want to seek the death penalty, would be made by the U.S. attorney general.
Easton was the supervising attorney of the regional Capital Defender Office. While New York had the death penalty, from 1995 to 2004, he served as lead attorney or as consultant in each capital trial held in western New York.
He’s also served federally, taking on five multijurisdictional murder cases and the first federal death penalty prosecution in the Rochester area, according to his bio.
Easton and Austin could not be reached for comment Thursday.