Just days after Gov. David A. Paterson commuted his prison sentence in the fatal shooting of an unarmed white teenager outside of his Long Island, N.Y., home nearly four years ago, John H. White told The Root in an exclusive and emotional interview that he never should have been sentenced in the racially charged slaying.
White shot 17-year-old Daniel Cicciaro in 2006 during a heated confrontation in which the teen and several friends came after White's 19-year-old son, Aaron. White claimed that he was defending his son from a "lynch mob" when the gun went off accidentally.
The case became a cause célèbre for the NAACP New York State Conference and the Long Island branches, as well as other civil rights organizations that saw the decision to prosecute the case as an egregious error of racial inequity. After the trial, the State Conference also passed a resolution calling for the governor to intervene. White served five months in prison before his sentence was commuted.
"The fact that John White is returning to his home and his family shows the power of people getting involved, raising their voice for justice and keeping the faith," Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP said in a prepared statement.
An emotional White told The Root, "My family and I feel exceptionally blessed because I'm out and I'm home. We feel that I should have never gone to prison. These people came to my home and attempted a lynching. I feel remorse for the young man who lost his life, but under the circumstances, there should have been a better outcome."
A better outcome would have been a pardon, he said, which would have expunged his record regarding the point-blank shooting death of Cicciaro. An even better one would have been no arrest or manslaughter conviction at all, said one of his attorneys, Marie Michel. If White were Caucasian and Cicciaro were black, White would never have been convicted, Michel surmises.
"We asked for a pardon, executive clemency or commutation," Michel said. "His entire record should have been expunged. We are very grateful that Gov. Paterson commuted his sentence, because the results are his freedom. Everyone was fighting to free John White. But now, where do we go from here? Mr. White still has a criminal record. He still has a felony on his record. That will affect his life forever. We are thankful, but we would have preferred a full pardon because it would have given him a clean slate to move forward."
White's original sentence of five to 15 years was reduced to two to four years based on his character. The judge cited White's record of honesty and his lack of prior arrests. White, a working-class man who has worked as a paver for 20 years, is a deacon at his church.
But not everyone is happy about the commutation.
Beresford Adams, a reverend at Faith Baptist Church in Coram, N.Y., and president of the Brookhaven branch of the NAACP, said, "There has been a loss of life. We are prayerful for both families. We hope these are times the communities can heal."
U.S. governors have commuted only a handful of sentences in high-profile cases over the last few decades. Many of those were death sentences reduced to life in prison, including that of John Spirko of Toledo, Ohio. His death sentence was commuted by Gov. Ted Strickland in 2008 to life after tests concluded that there was no DNA evidence linking him to the 1982 slaying of an Ohio postmistress, according to the Associated Press.
Paterson, who has granted nine pardons, three commutations and one clemency, plans to make more pardons before he leaves office on Dec. 31, according to the New York Times.
In White's case, the legal team argued strenuously that the incident was evocative of the civil rights era during which White came of age, when black people were confronted with lynchings and mobs of white people at their homes.
The details of the incident are these: Cicciaro, along with several other youths, left a party and showed up at White's house in Miller Place, a mostly white community in Suffolk County, to confront his son Aaron. The youths hurled racial epithets outside of the house. The racket rattled White from his sleep, prompting him to dash to the garage and grab a loaded Beretta pistol. White testified that the gun went off accidentally when Cicciaro lunged at him as White turned away.
White said that he still suffers from the pain and anguish of that night.
"I've always reached out and apologized to that family on the death of their son," he said, getting choked up. "They are saying I never did apologize, but I did. I still have remorse for that young man. He didn't have to come here that night, and he didn't have to die. It's all due to the fact that he did come here with the intention to do bodily harm to my family. I will be haunted every day of my life regarding this case, not just because of how it affected me, but because of how it affected the other family."
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.