ST. JOSEPH — A man who has been serving a prison sentence of life without parole for the murder of a friend’s mother when the two were teenagers will have a chance at freedom.
Mark Abbatoy, 41, and his then-friend, Anthony DePalma, were 17 when they beat to death DePalma’s mother, Connie DePalma, so they could steal her car and go to California. Both were convicted of first-degree murder in the May 7, 1997, homicide, and were handed the then-mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
According to testimony at their trials, Connie DePalma, 48, had been beaten over the head 10 times with a shovel, fracturing her skull, and her telephone was ripped from the wall to prevent her from calling for help as the boys fled from the DePalma’s home in Bridgman.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 2012 case of Miller vs. Alabama, ruled automatic life without parole sentences unconstitutional for any defendant under age 18, and in 2016 made the ruling retroactive. So prison inmates who were handed that sentence as juveniles can now be re-sentenced.
But prosecutors can argue for the sentence to remain life without parole, and former Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic filed motions to do that in several cases, including those of DePalma and Abbatoy.
DePalma, after a Miller hearing in 2019, was re-sentenced to 27-60 years and will be eligible for parole in three years.
Berrien Trial Court Judge Charles LaSata last March held a Miller hearing for Abbatoy, and on Monday rendered his decision against the life without parole sentence for him, and will re-sentence him on a yet-to-be-determined date.
The Supreme Court, in its 2012 ruling, said the life-without parole sentence should be given only to the “rare” juvenile who is irreparably corrupt and incapable of change. LaSata said that although the murder of Connie DePalma was “incredibly brutal,” Abbatoy was not proven to be irreparably corrupt and denied Chief Trial Attorney Cortney O’Malley’s motion for the life without parole sentence.
LaSata commended O’Malley and Leonid Feller, Abbatoy’s lawyer, for their arguments in the case and subsequent written briefs.
“These are very difficult matters. There’s a victim, and there’s a defendant who as a juvenile went to prison for life, and the gravity of these matters is not lost on this court,” LaSata said before announcing his decision.
Factors to be considered in a Miller hearing, in addition to the facts of the crime, include the defendant’s age and the inherent factors of youth such as immaturity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences, family background, educational background, behavior in prison, and potential for being rehabilitated.
According to testimony in Abbatoy’s hearing, he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder as a child, but his parents declined to have him treated with medication. But over the years in prison he had been given medications and sometimes refused to take them, according to testimony.
But a prison psychiatrist testified that Abbatoy had been in his care for the past few years, is taking his medication, is doing well, and is no longer resistant to treatment.
LaSata said Monday that Abbatoy, at 17, had untreated bi-polar disorder, had run away from home several times and had attempted suicide at age 13, yet his mother chose not to medicate him.
“I find that to be a mitigating factor in favor of the defendant,” the judge said.
LaSata announced his decision in his Berrien County Trial Court courtroom Monday, March 22, with O’Malley and Feller present in person and Abbatoy appearing by video from a state prison.