The Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court on Thursday upheld arson and other convictions against former Schenectady schools facilities director Steven Raucci, ruling against the defense on nearly every issue raised.
The court upheld Raucci’s first-degree arson conviction, the charge that provides the basis of Raucci’s 23-years-to-life sentence.
The court also ruled against the defense on more thorny issues of jurisdiction, finding convictions based on attempted bombings outside of Schenectady County were properly tried in Schenectady County.
“In sum,” the court wrote on the jurisdiction issue, “the evidence shows that the intended and actual impact of defendant’s use of explosive devices and other menacing acts in Rensselaer and Saratoga Counties was to unleash fear and intimidation that flowed back to the District, touching — on a broader level — virtually everyone within its boundaries.”
Raucci, now 64 and formerly of Niskayuna, had appealed his 2010 conviction on 18 of 21 counts in a series of incidents intended to intimidate people he perceived as enemies or enemies of his friends. No one was injured in any of the incidents. He is serving his time in the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.
Raucci served as facilities manager for the Schenectady City School District and also led the union unit that represented the workers he supervised. It was a dual position that prosecutors said made him valuable to the school administration for his ability to keep labor peace.
Arguments in the case were held in February and the ruling had been long-awaited, taking 20 weeks to be handed up. The time between the conviction and the appeal arguments itself was extended — nearly three years.
Reactions to the ruling Thursday were strong. Raucci’s attorney, Alan Pierce, issued a statement saying the ruling left him “extremely disappointed and shocked.”
Meanwhile, one of the targets of Raucci’s ire through vandalism and threats, Deborah Gray, expressed extreme relief when told of the ruling.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Thank God.”
“He’s right where he belongs,” Gray said, after regaining her composure, thanking family, prosecutors and investigators. “Thank God.”
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney praised the decision and the Appellate Division. The decision, he said, shows the time and thought they put into the case.
He also noted the court’s lengthy discussion of the issues concerning the charges based outside Schenectady County.
“That shows that they got it, they got it. They got the arguments,” Carney said. “They got the theme of the case. They got the arguments we made as to the significance as to what Raucci was doing.”
He said the ruling also goes to affirm the decisions made by the judge who presided over the case, Polly Hoye.
“I think it’s an important vindication for the wisdom of Judge Hoye and Judge Hoye’s decisions throughout the trial,” Carney said.
In the defense statement, Pierce referenced the counts based outside of Schenectady County as one of the multiple reasons he believes the conviction should have been overturned.
He indicated he plans to seek leave to argue the case before the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.
The ability to appeal unanimous rulings such as the one Thursday is not automatic. Attorneys must convince a Court of Appeals justice that there are larger issues to be decided.
Word on whether the Court of Appeals will take the case could come in the next several months.
“I continue to believe that his judgment of conviction should and must be reversed, the non-Schenectady County counts dismissed, and a new trial ordered on the remaining counts for which Steve was convicted,” Pierce wrote in his statement.
Pierce also pointed to a ruling earlier this year by the Court of Appeals in a related matter, that of Raucci’s pension. The high court not only accepted that case, but overturned the lower court’s ruling.
“We have done this before,” Pierce said of going to and winning at the Court of Appeals.
Among the other rulings the court upheld in Thursday’s decision: The showing of an FBI demonstration video that showed the power of devices similar to Raucci’s was proper; the search warrant used to recover newspaper clippings from a briefcase in Raucci’s office was valid; and his trial attorney effectively represented him.
The only issue on which the appellate court found in favor of the defense was a minor one, and it also found that it was harmless and had no impact on the overall case. That related to an employee under Raucci who testified to an argument with Raucci from 1995. The court found that the testimony shouldn’t have been admitted, but also found that it was harmless.
While the jurisdiction issues were more contentious, they were also not crucial to Raucci’s freedom: The consecutive sentences that totaled 23 years to life all were for crimes committed in Schenectady County.
Sentences for crimes in other counties — including an attempted bombing of a car in Saratoga County and the attempted bombing of a house in Rensselaer County — run concurrent to the main sentences.
Those issues did, however, provide fodder for part of the appeal. Had Raucci won his appeal on those counts, he would have faced new trials in the home counties.
In its ruling, the appeals court recounted testimony from employees of the district’s operations and maintenance unit, for which Raucci served as both supervisor and union head.
Several of those employees, the court notes, testified that they were aware of Raucci’s crimes from outside the county.
“This knowledge, together with generalized threats made by defendant against anyone who challenged him, as well as specific threats made against individuals who he believed were working against him,” the court wrote, “led his employees to fear for their jobs and [fear the] defendant.”
Among the examples the court noted was the convoy of approximately 12 employees Raucci took to the Saratoga County home of Harold and Deborah Gray to view extensive vandalism there — vandalism Raucci would later be convicted of.
Raucci’s intimidation techniques also resulted in a drop in union grievances, something he exploited with district administrators, the court wrote.
His techniques also got other results. Gary DiNola, the school district’s athletic director, had advocated against a Raucci position on after-hours school access. After Raucci tried to bomb DiNola’s car in Saratoga County, DiNola stopped that fight.
On the issue of the attempted bombing of the Rensselaer County home of Laura Balogh, the court found that was done to cement his position with Balogh rival Joanne DeSarbo, and his position in the union in the Schenectady school district.
On another issue, the court found that the varying crimes Raucci was accused of and later convicted of were properly tried together. The defense had argued they should have been tried separately.
“Simply put,” the court wrote, “the similarities existing between the victims, the type of property damage that occurred and the materials utilized in the underlying crimes, particularly with respect to the improvised explosive devices … demonstrates that defendant’s ‘modus operandi’ was sufficiently unique to make proof of his commission of one crime probative of his commission of the others.”
Regarding the newspaper clippings found in Raucci’s briefcase in his district office, the court noted that his attorney conceded that a warrant to search the office was valid. The defense contended a specific warrant to search the briefcase was not valid.
The clippings were of an article on the 2001 bombing of the Rotterdam home of Stephen and Colleen Cappitumino that damaged their front door.
It was for that bombing that Raucci was convicted of first-degree arson and was sentenced to as much as life in prison.
The court found that the arson conviction met all the criteria needed, that it happened at a residence that was likely occupied and that an explosive device was used. The jury’s conclusion that Raucci committed the crime was then supported by the evidence.
Another possible sticking point in the appeal was expected to be the FBI video used to demonstrate the power of similar devices. The defense at trial had argued they were simply firecrackers. The video attempted to prove they were far more.
The court found that the defense contention that they were firecrackers allowed the use of the video and what the video depicted was similar enough to those in the accusations against Raucci to allow it to be used.
Raucci also claimed that he was denied effective assistance of counsel at the trial. Raucci was represented through the trial by Ronald DeAngelus. The court found it was satisfied with DeAngelus’ representation, noting that he effectively cross-examined witnesses and presented a coherent defense.
Finally, the court declined to rule on arguments about hearsay evidence, finding that, even if the court found them valid, they would not have impacted the outcome.