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Editorial Archives The Altamont Enterprise, June 28, 2007
An American Tragedy
Erick Westervelts purple Pontiac is parked outside his parents well-tended house on Salvia Lane in Guilderland, as if he might be home soon to drive it. The Grand Am is protected from the weather with a tarp. It does not look out of place in the quintessential suburban neighborhood.
The car represents his familys hope that all will return to normal.
But the inside of the car tells a different story. The upholstery on the front and the back seats has been slashed and removed. The trunk has been gutted.
Police went over every inch of the vehicle looking for evidence to link Westervelt to the murder of Timothy Gray. While no physical evidence was ever found, Westervelt was convicted two years ago based on a confession he claims was false.
Westervelt, who is 25, now lives behind the thick walls and barbed wire of the Clinton County Correctional Facility in Dannamora, serving a sentence of 25 years to life. No green lawns. No real future. He studies binders filled with information about the murder of Gray and focuses on evidence he says police missed or misconstrued.
Westervelt recently wrote us a letter, outlining some of his concerns. Our Guilderland reporter, Jarrett Carroll, responded by visiting Westervelt in prison, interviewing his family in several different sessions, and talking to the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case as well as the police who investigated.
Weve devoted much time, effort, and space to the series because it tells a story no one else has told and it is important to our community. We, as a society, pay for prisons but very rarely take a look inside.
While most all of the local media were obsessed with covering the trial of Christopher Porco, Grays murder, which occurred in Delmar just five weeks earlier, with a hatchet rather than an ax, received comparatively scant media attention.
Erick Westervelt is one of our own. He attended Guilderland schools since kindergarten, played on the same athletic teams as our kids, was part of our community. While life-long Guilderland friends testified on his behalf at the trial saying he was a peaceful person who wasnt capable of killing not one of them has been to visit him in prison.
Only his family visits. His mother, father, and brother continue to believe in his innocence. They say he was at home the night Timothy Gray was bludgeoned. His father, John Westervelt, points out that the autopsy photos show defensive wounds, as if Gray put up a struggle, while the prosecution claimed that Westervelt had struck a blow from behind, leaving Gray helpless.
After the trial, Westervelt’s lawyer spoke of the "trickery" of the police who hadn’t told him of Gray’s critical condition at the time of the interrogation. So Westervelt thought he was confessing to just a fight over a shared girlfriend and could go home.
We don’t believe Westervelt’s appeal will be successful. The assistant district attorney is confident in the original case and conviction. "I don’t think there were any mistakes made," he said.
Westervelts family and Westervelt himself are pinning their hopes on that appeal.
Westervelt had wept in court when he heard the guilty verdict but two months later, at his sentencing, he spoke with stunning control. His voice did not waver as he told the judge the guilty verdict had been "an absolute mockery of justice."
Westervelt was focusing on getting a retrial, his lawyer said. "He’s holding it together...He’s putting his hope in that," said his lawyer.
Two years later, our reporter found that is still Westervelts focus as he goes over and over what he sees as the omissions and errors of his arrest and trial.
As time moves on, Westervelt will find himself in a cruel Catch-22. An innocent man would be hypocritical to show remorse. But a prisoner without remorse wont be paroled.
Westervelt’s family is adamant about his innocence. "I just wish more people knew what really happened," said his younger brother, Jason. "My brother told the truth...In my mind, he didn’t do it. Period. I know he’s innocent."
"We’re praying he’s granted an appeal; that’s my big wish," said his mother, Wendy. "At least granted a retrial."
Asked what they would do if their son had killed Gray, Wendy Westervelt said, "If he’s involved, yes, I would be upset with him, but I would love him and wouldn’t lie about it. No, I don’t think he was a part of it. I know where he was that night. I don’t think he would have put us through this if he was somehow involved."
We remember at Westervelt’s sentencing how Gray’s sister and father called for a sentence of life in prison without parole. His sister, Jennifer Gray, told the court why she thought that was fair. "Erick and his family should be robbed of their futures the way my family was," she said.
"In the end," she said, looking directly at Westervelt, "you will be alone...."
Outside the courtroom, Jennifer Gray said that the sentence "closes this chapter but the grief will never go away."
Well leave the reader to fathom what the next chapter will be.
Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor
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