Kalila Taylor, the Riverhead woman whose 1999 murder trial was ruled invalid in 2004 because of a judicial error, rejected a court offer Wednesday that would have let her avoid a new trial by accepting a sentence of 18 years to life in prison. That minimum sentence would be shorter by seven years than what she could face if convicted in a new trial, according to her attorney, John Loturco.
But Ms. Taylor wants a new trial, he said, although she must still undergo another set of psychiatric exams.
“The back end of the 18-to-life term is still life in prison,” he said in an interview. For that reason, “she would prefer to go to trial.”
Ms. Taylor was accused of stabbing 17-year-old Riverhead High School student Curtisha Morning 94 times in 1996 in the woods behind the high school parking lot. Ms. Morning’s body wasn’t found for a month after she was first reported missing. Ms. Taylor has been in jail since her arrest in June 1997. She is now 33 years old.
Ms. Morning’s relatives are not looking forward to another trial.
“It’s like living a bad dream all over again,” said Veronica Roberson, Ms. Morning’s cousin. “The family went through more than enough. I remember those days, months, years like it was yesterday.”
Ms. Taylor was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 and sentenced to 25 years to life in jail, following a trial in which prosecutors used extensive DNA evidence to link her to the crime.
In 2004, the state appellate court overturned the conviction and ordered a retrial on the grounds that the judge, Arthur Pitts, had incorrectly directed the jury to consider the DNA evidence as direct instead of circumstantial.
In 2006, however, County Court Judge Ralph Gazzillo ruled that Ms. Taylor was not mentally fit to stand trial, and a retrial was delayed. His ruling was based on letters she had written him, which he, at the time, called “bizarre, baseless and delusional.”
Ms. Taylor was found fit to stand trial earlier this year by state experts, according to Bob Clifford, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Tom Spota.
Mr. Loturco said that, over the past few years, state experts have consistently argued that Ms. Taylor is competent to stand trial, but experts for the defense have found that she is not competent.
“I have to get over the hurdle of her competency first,” Mr. Loturco said. “Because if she cannot assist me, how can I defend her?”
Ms. Taylor has recently been jailed in the Mid-Hudson Correctional Facility, which provides psychiatric treatment. If she were found competent and sentenced again to a 25-to-life term, she would likely be sent to a maximum security facility like Bedford Hills, where she was previously confined, and would not receive treatment, he said.
“Her family wants her to get the psychiatric treatment she needs,” Mr. Loturco said. “They feel she will not get that in a maximum security jail.”
Mr. Loturco said Ms. Taylor has exhibited signs of paranoid schizophrenia since she’s been in jail. She did not use an insanity defense in her trial in 1999.
The offer of an 18-years-to-life term was originally made by Judge Gazillo several years ago and was repeated by the present judge, C. Randall Hinrichs, last Wednesday, according to Mr. Clifford. It was rejected both times, said Mr. Loturco.
A key difference between an 18-to-life and a 25-to-life term is that she’d be eligible for parole sooner, he explained.
But if Ms. Taylor were to go to trial and be acquitted, she would be free, and her family could then decide what type of treatment she needs, Mr. Loturco said.
The nearly 12 years she has already spent in jail would count toward any prison sentence she might receive.