Jury spares DiMeo's life for killing Donnellys in Fairfield jewelry store
Christopher DiMeo took a large gulp of air and looked up at the courtroom ceiling, tears starting to roll down his cheeks.
The Bridgeport Superior Court jury of six men and six women, which for more than two months had heard testimony about DiMeo fatally shooting Fairfield jewelers Tim and Kim Donnelly during a robbery of their Post Road store six years ago, decided last Friday to spare his life.
DiMeo's hand trembled as he shook hands with his lawyers, Michael Courtney and Jeffrey Hutcoe. He ignored calls for comment as he was led away by judicial marshals.
"I don't know if forgiveness is mine to give," lamented the Donnellys' son, Eric Donnelly, outside the courthouse after the jury rendered its verdict. "I just hope we can all move on."
Added his sister, Tara: "It's a very emotional experience for the family, but this is a sense of closure and finally allows my mom and dad to rest in peace."
In their verdict, read out loud by court clerk Dan Molnar, jurors found for the first so-called aggravating factor that DiMeo had killed the Donnellys while robbing them and had previously been convicted of attempting to rob a Long Island Best Buy in 2001. But they deadlocked on the second aggravating factor that DiMeo had caused Kim Donnelly extreme physical or psychological pain, suffering or torture, reporting through Molnar they had no verdict on that.
The jurors next said that they found the defense had not proved the so-called statutory bar that DiMeo's mental capacity was significantly impaired when he killed the Donnellys.
But then, when they weighed the aggravating factor they found against a number of mitigating factors, including the value of DiMeo's life, mitigation won out.
The 29-year-old DiMeo now faces life in prison without the possibility of release when he is sentenced May 6 by Judge Robert Devlin.
DiMeo's lawyers declined comment as they left the courtroom. But Senior Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Corradino, who prosecuted the case with Senior Assistant State's Attorney Margaret Kelley, said later it was significant the jury did not believe the defense's claim of a psychological bar to DiMeo getting the death penalty.
Following the verdict Corradino asked the judge to declare a mistrial in the case because the jury was deadlocked on one of the aggravating factors. The judge denied the motion.
"No criminal prosecution can restore completely the loss to a victim," Corradino said later. "In murders it never happens, but we can at least strive toward justice.
"We had perhaps the best criminal judge in the state. We had a jury of dedicated, intelligent, conscientious citizens charged with a difficult task," he said. "A civilized society, of which we and the police are its representatives and defenders, should provide nothing less, even for such a senseless brutal crime. We owe as much and more to Tim and Kim Donnelly and their beautiful family. In the end, however, our human system guarantees a defendant due process. It guarantees no one justice."
DiMeo had already robbed two New York jewelry stores when, on Dec. 21, 2004, he fatally shot 48-year-old Thomas Renison, a father of two, at J&J Jewels in Glen Head, N.Y.
With New York police on his heels, DiMeo decided to instead start robbing jewelry stores in Connecticut.
His girlfriend, Nicole Pearce, held a phone book on her lap as they drove around the area casing targets. Pearce checked out two other stores in Fairfield before they decided on the Donnellys, a small store on the Post Road downtown with no surveillance cameras.
Shortly before closing time on Feb. 2, 2005, DiMeo entered the Donnelly store. He engaged the couple in conversation, telling them he was interested in getting an engagement ring for his girlfriend. The couple were only too willing to help. Kim Donnelly even modeled a bracelet after DiMeo told he might want one.
Then DiMeo pulled out the handgun, one he had stolen from a Greenwich home, the one he had used to fatally shoot Renison.
Kim Donnelly screamed as DiMeo fired four shots into her husband. DiMeo then shot her five times at close range in the chest and back.
The Donnellys' landlord, William Burke, who was working in his office over the store, heard the shots and came downstairs to see DiMeo stuffing a shopping bag with jewelry. He told Burke he was "da uncle," in a heavy New York accent ,as he left the store with his loot.
After selling the Donnelly jewelry for a fraction of what it was worth, DiMeo and Pearce went to Atlantic City, where they spent some of the money on heroin and at a casino.
Meanwhile, police were able to trace DiMeo's cell phone to a small Atlantic City motel. Two days after the Donnelly murders, police surrounded the motel and arrested DiMeo and Pearce.
Because of his fear of the state's death penalty, DiMeo initially declined to talk to Fairfield police about the Donnelly murders. But eventually he confessed to the killings, saying he blacked out when he committed them.
Later that year, DiMeo pleaded guilty to the murder of Renison and the New York jewelry store murders. He was sentenced to life in prison. But it would take another two years and numerous appeals before DiMeo was brought to Connecticut to stand trial.
The trial began in late January. From the beginning, DiMeo's lawyers conceded to the jury that their client had killed the Donnellys. Guilt was not going to be an issue; they were reserving their efforts for the penalty trial.
The 12-member jury deliberated about four hours before finding DiMeo guilty of all the charges, capital felony and two counts of murder.
At the penalty trial, the defense lawyers pulled out all the stops.
Dr. Howard Zonana, the father of forensic psychiatry at Yale University, testified DiMeo had not been able to control his actions when he killed the Donnellys because of his extensive heroin use and a dismal upbringing in which he was surrounded by drug users and criminals much of his young life.
Dr. Peter Gottschalk, a leading Yale neurologist, testified there are irregularities in DiMeo's brain. "This brain hums a different tune," he told the jury.
The prosecution countered with forensic psychiatrist Dr. Paul Amble, a noted disciple of Zonana, who agreed with everything his mentor testified to -- except his diagnosis. Amble said DiMeo's actions in killing the Donnellys could have resulted from many factors, including his desire to get them out of the way so he could steal their jewelry.
As jurors began their deliberations on Tuesday of last week, notes they sent out to the judge showed their struggles with a complicated verdict form.
Under state law, in order for a jury to find for the death penalty it first has to find the prosecutors proved at least one aggravating factor. Then it must rule out that the defense had proved a statutory mitigating factor -- that DiMeo was significantly impaired at the time of the crime.
And finally, the jury would have to weigh the aggravating factor against other mitigating factors that could be almost anything.
But from the beginning, jurors had problems. They told the judge they agreed the state had proven one aggravating factor -- that DiMeo had been convicted of the attempted robbery of a Best Buy store on Long Island in 2001. But they said they were hung on the other -- that DiMeo engaged in intentional conduct that inflicted extreme physical or psychological pain, suffering or torture on a victim above and beyond that necessarily accompanying the underlying killing.
Although there was a strong desire in the community to see DiMeo get the death penalty for the crime, Fairfield Police Sgt. Ed Greene, who supervised the investigation of the case, said he respects the jury's decision to give DiMeo life instead.
"They have been working a very long time with this trial and heard all the evidence and testimony and I have respect for their decision," he added.