By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — Timothy Depetris spends his days at the Niagara County Jail alone, locked in a small cell, and isolated from the rest of the inmate population.
He was ordered to be be kept in isolation after he was accused of trying to enlist another inmate to help him hire a hitman.
Now Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas is weighing whether that isolation is violating Depetris' constitutional rights.
Farkas heard testimony from Depetris, during a Thursday hearing, on claims he is being denied access to his defense counsel and access to assisting in his own defense as a result of that isolation. Specifically, Depetris and his attorney claim that he is being kept from using a jail computer that can be used for legal research and is not being allowed to make phone calls to his lawyer.
The son of the founder of Electrodyn Choke Corp. is accused of trying, and failing, to kill his brother-in-law and then trying to hire a hitman to kill his relative and a witness to the first crime.
Depetris has pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree attempted murder, two counts of second-degree attempted murder, two counts of conspiracy and two counts of criminal solicitation in connection with his attempt to hire a hitman while he was in the county jail. He has been jailed, without bail, since his arraignment on May 15 on charges of attempted first-degree murder, first-degree criminal use of a firearm, three counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon, six counts of third-degree criminal possession of a weapon and second-degree criminal trespass in connection with the actual shooting of his brother-in-law in the early morning hours of March 26.
Six of those charges, relating to the possession of a “large capacity ammunition feeding device”, also known as a bullet clip or ammunition magazine, have been dismissed.
At the time of his arrest on the first set of charges, Depetris was held in a "pod" at the jail with between 56 and 70 other inmates. After being charged with trying to hire the hitman, Depetris was moved to a single cell in the jail's infirmary.
Under questioning by his defense attorney, Earl Key, Depetris told Farkas he spends almost his entire day locked in the cell. He also said he is frequently moved from the medical unit to another single cell in an area where incoming inmates arrive at the facility.
"That's where all the prisoners coming in or going out of the jail are processed," Depetris said.
He told Farkas he was having a hard time dealing with the repeated cell transfers and was having trouble sleeping when he was in the cell in the in inmate processing area. Key told the judge his client was suffering from sleep deprivation.
"He's not mentally competent to assist me in his defense if he is sleep deprived," Key said.
Depetris also testified that when he was housed in the jail pod he had almost daily access to the inmate computer, but since the isolation order has had no access. He testified he filed a formal request to use the computer at least three times, but received no response from jail officials and no access.
"I gave up asking (after the third written request)," Depetris testified. "I was afraid to keep asking."
Both Depetris and Key also complained that it took 27 days for a letter from Key to Depetris to be delivered through the jail's mail processing operation.
During cross-examination by First Assistant District Attorney Doreen Hoffmann, Depetris admitted that while he was in a pod, he never logged on to the inmate computer himself. He said another inmate, who had worked as a paralegal, helped him use the computer.
Hoffmann and Depetris also sparred over his ability to call his lawyer. The assistant DA showed Depetris a copy of a written "statement of rights" he received when he was placed in isolation that indicated he had "a right to legal services."
Depetris replied that despite the statement of rights, he has never attempted to call Key because jail officials told him he was barred from making phone calls.
Prosecutors called Sheriff's Office Corrections Sgt. Anthony Suess who testified that the inmate computer is available outside the pods, if requested. Suess also said if an inmate asks to use the computer, and is denied access, he receives a written rejection.
The sergeant, who oversees the inmate processing operation, said their were no rejection slips for the inmate computer in Depetris' jail file.
The hearing is scheduled to continue next week.
Depetris is accused of shooting his brother-in-law in the doorway of the victim’s new business in the 2300 block of Hyde Park Boulevard. The 56-year-old victim, who had gone to the door for a pizza delivery, was shot in the upper chest, near his shoulder.
In addition to looking for a hit man to kill his brother-in-law, Depetris reportedly was also seeking to kill a pizza deliveryman who was with him at the time of the shooting and has since cooperated with police and prosecutors. Investigators have said the pizza deliveryman lured the victim to the doorway.
A few days after the shooring, police stopped Depetris as he was driving through the city and found what one investigator called an “arsenal” inside his car.
Detectives said Depetris had a loaded semi-automatic 9-mm Baretta handgun in a holster around his neck and under his shirt at the time he was stopped. Police also recovered a fully automatic rifle and multiple, loaded ammunition clips in the back seat of the car.