March 16, 2000
Edition: Schenectady Albany; Final
Killer's term trimmed, he apologizes, regrets
SCHENECTADY - Francis DiDonato apologized Wednesday for killing a woman in 1991 and said he is working to warn others of the perils of alcohol and drug abuse, as a judge re-sentenced him to serve 15 years to life in prison. The court appearance caps years of litigation and legal wrangling over DiDonato's murder of 48-year-old Collene Johengen, who he beat and strangled inside her 204 Lafayette St. apartment building in January 1991. DiDonato originally got a sentence of 20 years to life for second-degree murder. But legal errors prompted multiple appeals over the years. He has meanwhile been in the state prison system. Recently, DiDonato was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea, and got a new sentence that potentially shaves five years off his prison term - finally settling the case. DiDonato says he has no memory of assaulting Johengen, and that he was on alcohol and drugs at the time. He often thinks of that day, he said. "My alcohol and drug addictions, I've been fighting that battle sine I was 16 years old," he told Judge Michael C. Eidens. He admitted killing Johengen. "The pain and heartache goes on. I will be sorry for the rest of my life," the 36-year old said. He knew Johengen for five years, and said "Colleen" never gave him any trouble. DiDonato told Eidens he now works as a peer counselor at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, helping young inmates with drug problems. He hopes one day to speak at schools and to warn people about the perils of substance abuse. Reading from a letter to Johengen's family, he said, "I ask if not for your forgiveness, then please your understanding." His apology was to a mostly empty courtroom. Nobody appeared on Johengen's behalf; Chapleau said authorities have no contact with her family. Nobody showed up for DiDonato either. Chapleau said he is convinced DiDonato's remorse is genuine. "I believe that but for alcohol and substance abuse, this would not have happened," Chapleau said. It was early Jan. 4, 1991, when DiDonato called police to report he found Johengen dead in the lobby of a building where they both lived. He managed the building. Authorities arrested him, saying he bludgeoned her with a kitchen pot and strangled her. In 1992, DiDonato pleaded guilty to intentional second-degree murder. Visiting Judge S. Peter Feldstein assured him, over the district attorney's objection, he could withdraw his plea if he was unable to appeal a denial of a motion to enter a late notice of intent to offer a psychiatric defense. That led to various appeals. Chapleau has made three trips to the Appellate Division and two to the state's top court, the Court of Appeals, to argue the case. Ultimately, five judges on the Appellate Division said last year that a guilty plea that is "induced by an unfulfilled promise either must be vacated, or the promise honored." That led to a new deal shaving five years off the sentence. As part of the new plea bargain, DiDonato has waived his right to appeal. DiDonatos' new guilty plea was not to intentional murder, but to a second-degree murder count under the theory his actions showed recklessness and a depraved indifference to human life. That distinction could help him get parole, his attorney, Randall Kehoe, has said.
Copyright 2005, 2006 The Daily Gazette Co. All Rights Reserved.