The perjury committed by Safyre Terry’s biological mother resulted from “some of the most coercive tactics” deployed on an “already psychologically fragile woman,” the woman’s attorney argues in a new court filing.
Jennica Duell’s attorney Cheryl Coleman asked in the filing for a sentence of no more than five years for Duell, days after prosecutors asked the judge for the maximum term, 15 years, in the perjury case related to the 2013 fire that killed three of Duell’s children, maimed Safyre and killed their father.
Coleman argued for the lesser sentence, highlighting police tactics, her client’s mental state and history, as well as pressure put on other witnesses that all “left the Government, in public, with egg on their faces.”
Coleman also contrasted the prosecution-proposed 15-year sentence, with the 10-year maximum sentence received by the St. Johnsville man found guilty after trial of lying to the same grand jury when he denied sending text threats to the adult victim and denied being in Schenectady at the time of the fire.
Coleman cited “a mountain of evidence” pointing to Leon as the perpetrator of the fire. Leon denies setting the blaze and no one is now charged with starting it.
“The Government now somehow asks this Court with a straight face to sentence Ms. Duell to 15 years,” Coleman wrote. “Your Honor, for so many reasons, I would respectfully ask this Court not to do so.”
Duell, 28, has been in custody since her November 2014 perjury arrest.
The three counts to which Duell pleaded guilty comprise the heart of her initial account that bolstered charges against the man arrested for allegedly setting the May 2013 fire, Robert A. Butler. Butler remained held for nine months before being released after attention fell on Leon.
Federal prosecutors have since won convictions after trial against Leon on his two perjury counts. He received consecutive five-year sentences in March.
Prosecutors first indicted Duell and Leon in 2014, more than a year after the May 2, 2013, blaze at 438 Hulett St. that killed David Terry, 32, and his children Layah, 3, Michael, 2, and Donavan Duell, 11 months. Safyre, found by firefighters in her father’s arms, suffered severe injuries and underwent a long recovery that continues.
Safyre, who became the focus of a worldwide Christmas-card project in December, has been in the care of her aunt, Liz Dolder — David Terry’s sister — since returning home from the hospital.
The arson remains unsolved and a reward of up to $40,000 continues to be offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible.
Duell was accused of lying about the nature of her relationships with David Terry and Butler; how she, Butler and others supposedly got from Saratoga Springs to Schenectady the morning of the fire; got gasoline; how the fire started and by whom, and supposed discussion of a cover story.
Coleman focused on Duell’s mind-set during the early hours and days of the investigation. She argued that Duell, just after learning of her children’s deaths and life-threatening injury to her daughter Safyre, quickly found herself being interrogated by Schenectady police detectives.
“It’s something that kills the strongest among us,” Coleman said of losing a child. “And Jennica Duell is hardly the strongest among us.”
Coleman argued that detectives first introduced the scenario that Duell and Butler set the fire and then insisted on that. Coleman cited tapes and transcripts of the questioning that “show some of the most coercive tactics this writer has seen in over 30 years of criminal practice.”
Coleman said detectives told Duell she could tell them Butler set the fire and then she could go see her surviving daughter, Safyre, or she could continue to say Butler wasn’t there and never see Safyre again.
Coleman said Duell returned the next day to say she lied, but the pressure — and story — renewed. By the time Duell made it to grand jury, she was “way in too deep to do the right thing, and this writer would add, not strong enough.”
Coleman acknowledged that Duell broke the law, but the attorney argued there is blame for others, too.
“This writer respectfully submits that some introspection by the Government as to the coercive techniques employed in this case, particularly as it relates to Jennica Duell, is warranted," Coleman wrote. "The problem with coercive interview techniques is that they can coerce the innocent along with the guilty.”
Reach Gazette reporter Steven Cook at 395-3122, [email protected] or @ByStevenCook on Twitter.