NILES — Appearing in a Niles courtroom on video from a state prison, Anthony DePalma appeared to fight back tears as he learned that he could someday be a free man.
Berrien County Trial Court Judge Sterling Schrock on May 13 re-sentenced De-Palma, 41, to 27-60 years. He has served 23 years, so could be eligible for parole in four years.
DePalma was 17 when he was involved in the May 7, 1997, murder of his mother, Connie DePalma, 48, in Bridgman. He and his friend, Mark Abbatoy, were convicted of beating her with a shovel so they could steal her car and drive to California. DePalma said they merely planned to knock her out and did not intend to kill her. An autopsy revealed that Connie De-Palma had suffered at least 10 blows to the head, three of which would have been fatal.
DePalma has said it was Abbatoy who delivered all the blows, but he admits to formulating the plan, handing him the shovel and doing nothing to stop him from beating her.
DePalma and Abbatoy, also 17 at the time, both were convicted of first-degree felony murder and were handed the mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Miller vs. Alabama, that the automatic life without parole sentence is unconstitutional for any defendant under age 18. 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, and Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic filed motions to do that in several cases, including those of DePalma and Abbatoy. Abbatoy’s case has not been decided.
Last December, Schrock presided over a Miller hearing for DePalma, in which Berrien Assistant Prosecutor Cortney O’Malley argued for the sentence to stay the same while DePalma’s lawyer, Brittany Parling, argued for a re-sentence to a term of years.
In February, Schrock ruled that DePalma would be re-sentenced to a term of years, saying the Supreme Court intended the life without parole sentence to be given only to “the rare” juvenile who is irreparably corrupt and incapable of change.
He said he does not believe that of DePalma. In a Miller hearing, a judge must consider several factors including the facts of the case and the inmate’s involvement, 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 prison is also considered.
In his ruling in February, Schrock said that in his opinion, at the time of the murder DePalma was functioning at an age level less than 17, his home environment was dysfunctional and he displayed behavior that reflected youthful decision- making. He said that in prison, there are limited opportunities for self-improvement programs for inmates who will never get out and that DePalma “has taken advantage of any that are available, has shown significant growth and maturity and a significant potential for more beyond that already achieved.”
In pronouncing the new sentence May 13, Schrock said, “There is no justification for a criminal act of this nature. There is no way to explain it away, and Mr. DePalma is responsible. But there was a full hearing, with both parties having the opportunity to present evidence related to the Miller factors, and based on those findings, I hereby sentence (DePalma) to 27-60 years, with credit for 8,406 days (23 years and five days).”
Before re-sentencing DePalma, Schrock heard from O’Malley, Parling and Robin DePalma, Anthony De-Palma’s sister and Connie DePalma’s daughter, also appearing by video.
“I can’t continue to let this destroy my life,” Robin DePalma said in tearful testimony. “I’ve seen no remorse from him. ... He’s not sorry. He’s just sorry for where he’s at. I hope it torments him as much as it torments me. No amount of time will make me forgive him, and after today I hope to never lay eyes on him again.”
O’Malley asked for a sentence of 40-60 years, telling the judge, “He’s asking you to give him a life. The last minutes of her (Connie DePalma’s) life were pain and torture. For 15 minutes, this went on. He has shown no remorse, no empathy. If he doesn’t show those, he hasn’t learned anything.”
Parling argued that DePalma has shown remorse.
“I’ve gotten to know his as a person over the last four years representing him,” she said. “He is respectful and kind. I believe he is a good, genuine person. He is remorseful, ready to do something with his life, and a prime example of what these Miller hearings are about. I would be happy to have him as my next-door neighbor.”
DePalma also addressed the judge.
“I want to apologize to my family for all the hurt and pain, robbing them of their mother. My mother held the family together and I’m the one who took that. There’s nothing I can do or say to bring her back. I will spend the rest of my life trying to be someone my mother would be proud of,” he said. “No one should be afraid of me. I stand before you today a good person, ready to re-enter society.”