ST. JOSEPH — Anthony DePalma told a Berrien County judge Wednesday that his teenage rebellion was stupid and that he wished he had listened to his mother when she tried to get him help.
Under questioning by his lawyer, Brittany Parling, DePalma told Judge Sterling Schrock that as a teen he was immature, impulsive, lazy but a hard worker, selfish and spoiled, and just wanted everybody to like him. He said now, at 40, he is a changed man.
DePalma was 17 when he and his friend, Mark Abbatoy, beat DePalma’s mother with a shovel because they wanted to steal her car. He said their plan was to knock her out and flee to California.
Connie DePalma, 48, died at her home in Bridgman. An autopsy revealed she had suffered at least 10 blows to the head, three of which would have been fatal. Anthony DePalma was found guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Abbatoy received the same verdict and sentence.
DePalma, who has served a little over 22 years, has been in Berrien County Trial Court with his lawyer in a bid for a new sentence. Berrien Assistant Prosecutor Cortney O’Malley-Septoski is arguing for him to stay locked up for life. The hearing began last week and continued Wednesday. At the conclusion, Judge Schrock said he will notify the lawyers of timing for his ruling on the matter, plus the date for a re-sentencing, if there is one.
In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Miller vs. Alabama, ruled that an automatic sentence of life without parole for a juvenile is unconstitutional. In 2016, the high court made the ruling retroactive, so prison inmates who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles can be re-sentenced. But prosecutors can argue for the sentence to remain life without parole. Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic filed motions to do so in DePalma’s case and several others.
In 2014 the Michigan Legislature enacted a law that gives judges, when sentencing a juvenile, the choice between life without parole or a term of years. If a term of years, the minimum sentence must be between 25 and 40 years, and a maximum of 60 years.
One of the criteria for a juvenile-lifer to be re-sentenced to a term of years is that he or she be capable of rehabilitation, and that includes accepting responsibility for his or her crimes. At his trial, DePalma denied striking his mother, claiming Abbatoy delivered all the blows.
On the witness stand Wednesday, he continued to contend that he did not strike his mother, but admitted that he planned for Abbatoy to, and handed him the shovel. Under questioning by Parling, he said he did not plan to kill his mother, and did not expect her to die when he and Abbatoy formulated the plan to strike her with the shovel.
Other factors a judge must consider in what has come to be known as a Miller hearing relate not just to the facts of the case and the inmate’s involvement, but also the inmate’s family history, prior criminal involvement, mental health issues, school history, and generally the relative maturity of the inmate as a youth to fully realize the wrongfulness of their actions. Conduct in jail and/or prison is also considered. The defendant also must show sincere remorse.
“I spent the last 20-some years trying to forget that this happened, distance myself from it,” DePalma told the court. “I can’t believe I would ever do something like that. The last moments of her life must have been horrible. I pretty much ruined my family. They lost their mother, their sister, their grandmother. She was a really good person.”
A clinical psychologist testified last week that DePalma’s brain, like that of other juveniles, was not fully developed at 17 and he would have had little capacity to control impulses. He said based on his assessment, DePalma has matured and done well in prison the past few years.
O’Malley-Septoski said that throughout DePalma’s life, he did well when there was motive. When he was on probation in his teen years for stealing cars, he did well in school, which was a condition of his probation, she said.
“After probation you went back to partying because that’s what you preferred, correct?” O’Malley-Septoski asked, and DePalma replied, “Yes.”
Although he still denies having hit his mother with the shovel and insists only Abbatoy did, DePalma admitted it was his idea, he took the car keys, he chose the weapon and handed it to Abbatoy, and he drove the car away.
“Without me, Mark wouldn’t have done any of this,” DePalma told the court.
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