January 8, 2000
Edition: Schenectady Albany; Final
Bargain alters killer's conviction
Ending years of legal battles, DiDonato withdraws plea, admits to lesser charge SCHENECTADY - An admitted killer withdrew his guilty plea Friday and got a new deal that will shave five years off his sentence - a partial legal victory that will end eight years of court wrangling. Francis DiDonato withdrew a guilty plea in the 1991 killing of 48-year-old Collene Johengen, a crime for which he has been serving a 20-years-to-life sentence. But moments later he promptly admitted to second-degree murder and burglary again, part of a new plea bargain that will get him a sentence of 15 years to life in prison. Once convicted of second-degree intentional murder, he now is convicted of second-degree murder for behaving recklessly in a manner "evincing a depraved indifference to human life" - a distinction that could influence parole officials, said his attorney, Randall Kehoe. DiDonato beat and strangled Johengen in her 204 Lafayette St. apartment building, which he managed, in January 1991. He says he has no memory of the killing. DiDonato pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1992. Over the objection of the district attorney, visiting Judge S. Peter Feldstein told him at the time that he could withdraw his plea if he was unable to appeal the denial of a motion to enter a late notice of intent to offer a psychiatric defense. Feldstein's promise led to years of arguments in legal papers in appellate courts. DiDonato never was able to offer the late motion for a psychiatric defense. And ultimately, five judges of 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." "Given what Judge Feldstein did, this was the best we could hope for," said Chief Assistant District Attorney Alfred D. Chapleau, who has argued the case for years. DiDonato appeared Friday morning before County Court Judge Michael C. Eidens. Now 36, he had been reluctant to appear in court in a county jail issue short-sleeve shirt that showed the gaudy tattoos on his forearms, saying he felt "disrespectful." He pleaded guilty to burglary and to second-degree murder. He admitted to the crimes, but said he had no memories of striking or beating Johengen. When Judge Eidens asked him if he entered her dwelling, he answered: "I don't remember how I got there, but I ended up there." He said he had no idea why. Eidens set his sentencing for February 18. He is meanwhile in prison. Extensive negotiations led to the new plea bargain, Chapleau said. Since 1992, the police officers who were the lead investigators in the case have retired, and a witness who offered important testimony to a grand jury has died. Chapleau said that DiDonato has been an exemplary inmate over the years. "The crimes committed by Mr. DiDonato were in large measure brought about by his alcohol and substance abuse," he said. "Certainly, this is another tragic case where alcoholism and substance abuse played a role in a violent death. It's fair to say that there's some evidence that but for the alcohol and substance abuse, this may not have happened."
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