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Lawyer for Fort Ann murder suspect seeks dismissal

FORT EDWARD — The lawyer for the Fort Ann man who has been charged with killing his grandmother has asked a judge to dismiss the charges in the case, claiming the indictment against his client is flawed and there isn’t enough evidence to charge him with murder.

Kevin L. Gonyea will be in Washington County Court on Friday to argue that the charges against him should not stand for the July 9 death of 95-year-old Leona Twiss in her West Fort Ann home.

Teresi filed a 60-page pre-trial motion recently, seeking a variety of rulings on behalf of his client to either dismiss the charges or limit the evidence against him.

The case stems from Twiss’ death in her Twiss Road home, which was initially billed as being from natural causes. But forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Sikirica found that she had injuries consistent with being strangled, and Gonyea was charged with murder two days later.

Much of the criminal case is based on the statement of his wife, Melissa Gonyea, who told police that her husband killed his grandmother, then had her dispose of the towel that was allegedly used to choke Ms. Twiss.

“He killed her,” Mrs. Gonyea could be heard telling her lawyer during a court appearance, Washington County sheriff’s officers reported in court records.

His lawyer, Greg Teresi, claimed that the only evidence against his client was “inadmissible hearsay” from Gonyea’s wife. There are no indications Mr. Gonyea made any admissions to police.

“There was not competent and admissible evidence presented to the grand jury that the defendant killed Leona Twiss,” Teresi wrote.

Washington County prosecutors also illegally “prejudiced” Mr. Gonyea by having the grand jury review welfare fraud allegations against him during the murder case review, Teresi wrote.

Gonyea, 50, was also indicted on welfare fraud charges, in addition to the second-degree murder, tampering with physical evidence and hindering prosecution counts for his grandmother’s death and alleged coverup efforts afterward.

Should the charges not be dismissed, Teresi asked McKeighan to try Gonyea separately from his wife, who was charged with tampering with evidence, hindering prosecution and welfare fraud counts.

Robert Gregor, the lawyer for Gonyea’s wife, has also asked McKeighan to dismiss charges against her.

The Washington County District Attorney’s Office is contesting the dismissal motions.

Mrs. Gonyea’s case will be argued at 9:30 a.m. Friday, and her husband’s at 1:30 p.m. McKeighan may set trial dates in the case during the hearing.

McKeighan ruled late last month that the district attorney’s office could compel Mr. Gonyea to give a DNA sample to be used for comparison to evidence recovered in the case.

Teresi has said his client’s case is likely headed to trial.

One unusual angle that will likely play out in the case is that Mrs. Gonyea can not be made to testify against her husband because of “spousal privilege.”

She could, though, willingly testify as part of a plea deal on her own charges.

Both Gonyeas have pleaded not guilty and are being held in Washington County Jail pending further court action.

They had moved to the region from Florida last year to care for Kevin Gonyea’s grandparents. His grandfather died of natural causes last fall, and prosecutors believes Ms. Twiss was killed because the couple wanted to return to Florida.


Local
'I have no idea how we all got out'

HUDSON FALLS — Stacey LaValley was sound asleep early Friday, dreaming a dream about seeing family members, when she awoke around 4 a.m. to the smell of smoke.

“I yelled loudly, ‘Something’s burning!’ “ she recalled.

She and her husband, Brian LaValley, opened the door to their second-floor bedroom to a wall of smoke so thick they couldn’t see their daughter’s bedroom across the hall. They grabbed clothes to cover their faces, and struggled through the smoky hallway to find the stairs.

“If you put your hand in front of your face, you couldn’t see it,” she recalled. “I have no idea how we all got out.”

They were able to awaken their 20-year-old daughter, Megan, but they were met with flames in the first-floor living room, near the front door. They charged through to the front porch, where neighbors were starting to gather.

A friend of the family who was living with them, Logan Barcomb, was able to escape and was at the back door when Mrs. LaValley got out.

Three of the four wound up with burns or singed hair, with Brian LaValley suffering the worst. He was hurt when he went back into the house to get the family dog, Colby, who was trapped in their bedroom.

Brian LaValley said he could hear the dog barking, and ran back in through the flames to the bedroom. But as he came back down the stairs, he became dizzy and collapsed, releasing the dog for it to run down the stairs.

“I was overwhelmed,” he said, tears welling in his eyes.

Seconds later, though, Colby ran back up the stairs to him, and with a burst of energy, the two made it down and through the burning first floor.

Brian LaValley wound up with significant facial burns that were still red and raw Monday.

“He was just as much my hero as I was his,” Brian LaValley said.

The LaValleys returned to the home Monday to meet with insurance adjusters, and to return clothes and blankets that neighbors gave them early Friday as they fled the burning house in little more than their underwear.

They wept on-and-off as they recounted narrowly getting out of the burning John Street home, and the mementos that they lost, such as a small statue that belonged to Stacey LaValley’s father.

A number of benefits have been organized for the family. A dinner with music and raffles will be held at the Boar’s Nest in Fort Ann on Dec. 9, and an online fundraiser is ongoing at www.gofundme.com/bxpyv-family-house-fire.

As she talked with a neighbor whose house was damaged by the fire, Stacey LaValley lamented not her own tribulations, but those of the neighbors and people who have helped the family with clothes and other items. The family is staying with friends, nine people in one home, until they can find a better spot.

“I can’t stand how it’s affecting everybody else,” she said.

“In my mind, I keep thinking about, ‘How am I going to pay this forward?” Brian LaValley said.

They do plan to rebuild at the site, which was Stacey LaValley’s childhood home. The LaValleys are parents of three adult children, two of them currently in the military.

The family had a smoke detector in the home, but had taken the battery out because it was being triggered by cooking mishaps.

The fire is believed to have started on or around a futon near the front door, but both the LaValleys and Washington County fire investigators are at a loss to say how it started. Brian LaValley said he occasionally smokes, but not inside the house.

Stacey LaValley said there was a curio cabinet next to the futon, and an electrical outlet next to the cabinet.

Washington County Fire Coordinator Glenn Bristol said his office had no new information in the case as of Monday, pending the final report from investigators.

Fire investigators have brought in Hudson Falls Police and State Police to assist with the case.

Hudson Falls Police Detective Scott Gillis said police have found no indication anyone inside the home was responsible for the fire, or that the LaValleys had anyone targeting them.


Washington
AP
Trump choosing white men as judges, highest rate in decades

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is nominating white men to America’s federal courts at a rate not seen in nearly 30 years, threatening to reverse a slow transformation toward a judiciary that reflects the nation’s diversity.

So far, 91 percent of Trump’s nominees are white, and 81 percent are male, an Associated Press analysis has found. Three of every four are white men, with few African-Americans and Hispanics in the mix. The last president to nominate a similarly homogenous group was George H.W. Bush.

The shift could prove to be one of Trump’s most enduring legacies. These are lifetime appointments, and Trump has inherited both an unusually high number of vacancies and an aging population of judges. That puts him in position to significantly reshape the courts that decide thousands of civil rights, environmental, criminal justice and other disputes across the country. The White House has been upfront about its plans to quickly fill the seats with conservatives and has made clear that judicial philosophy tops any concerns about shrinking racial or gender diversity.

Trump is anything but shy about his plans, calling his imprint on the courts an “untold story” of his presidency.

“Nobody wants to talk about it,” he says. “But when you think of it ... that has consequences 40 years out.” He predicted at a recent Cabinet meeting, “A big percentage of the court will be changed by this administration over a very short period of time.”

Advocates for putting more women and racial minorities on the bench argue that courts that more closely reflect the demographics of the population ensure a broader range of viewpoints and inspire greater confidence in judicial rulings.

One court that has become a focus in the debate is the Eastern District of North Carolina, a region that, despite its sizeable black population, has never had a black judge. A seat on that court has been open for more than a decade. George W. Bush named a white man, and Barack Obama at different points nominated two black women, but none of those nominees ever came to a vote in the Senate.

Trump has renominated Bush’s original choice: Thomas Farr, a private attorney whose work defending North Carolina’s redistricting maps and a voter identification law has raised concerns among civil rights advocates.

Kyle Barry, senior policy counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that when diversity is lacking, “there’s a clear perception where the courts are not a place people can go and vindicate their civil rights.”

In recent decades, Democrats have consistently named more racial minorities and women on the courts. But even compared to his Republican predecessors, Trump’s nominees stand out. So far, he has nominated the highest percentage of white judges in his first year since Ronald Reagan. If he continues on his trend through his first term, he will be the first Republican since Herbert Hoover to name fewer women and minorities to the court than his GOP predecessor.

The AP reviewed 58 nominees to lifetime positions on appellate and district courts, as well as the Supreme Court, by the end of October. Fifty-three are white, three are Asian-American, one is Hispanic and one is African-American. There are 47 men and 11 women. Thirteen have won Senate approval.

The numbers stand in marked contrast to those of Obama, who made diversifying the federal bench a priority. White men represented just 37 percent of judges confirmed during Obama’s two terms; nearly 42 percent of his judges were women.

Some of Obama’s efforts were thwarted by a Republican-led Senate that blocked all of his nominations he made in the final year of his presidency, handing Trump a backlog of more than 100 open seats and significant sway over the future of the court.

Trump has moved aggressively to name new judges, getting off to a much quicker start than his predecessors. He has nominated more than twice as many as Obama had at this point in his presidency. While there have been clashes in the Senate over the nomination process, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled that he is committed to moving judicial nominees through.

Many of Trump’s white, male nominees would replace white, male judges. But of the Trump nominees currently pending, more than a quarter are white males slated for seats have been held by women or minorities.

Of the eight seats currently vacant that had non-white judges, only one has a non-white nominee.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley says Trump is focused on qualifications and suggests that prioritizing diversity would bring politics to the bench.

“The president has delivered on his promise to nominate the best, most-qualified judges,” Gidley said. “While past presidents may have chosen to nominate activist judges with a political agenda and a history of legislating from the bench, President Trump has nominated outstanding originalist judges who respect the U.S. Constitution.”

Trump, who has cited the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch as a key achievement, has focused on judges with conservative resumes. His picks have been welcomed by conservative legal groups.

Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general for George W. Bush, says that when considering nominees “sometimes President Bush would look at the list we gave him and he would say, ‘I want more diversity, I want more women, I want more minorities.’”

In his first year, Obama’s confirmed judicial nominees were 31 percent white men. Bush had 67 percent, Bill Clinton 38 percent, George H.W. Bush 74 percent and Reagan 93 percent.


Courtesy WNYT-NewsChannel 13  

Kevin Gonyea listens in court during his murder arraignment on Sept. 15 before Washington County Judge Kelly McKeighan. Gonyea pleaded not guilty to seven charges, which included second-degree murder.


Local
Queensbury budget approved amid urges for deeper tax cut

QUEENSBURY — The Town Board approved the 2018 budget with an 8.8 percent tax cut last week, but not before getting a scolding from resident Travis Whitehead.

The town is saving too much money instead of cutting taxes further, he said.

“It would take a total disaster to wipe you out,” he added when board members defended the need to rebuild savings after a short-lived attempt to eliminate town taxes a decade ago.

In a series of spreadsheets, Whitehead tracked yearly transfers of surplus funds each year, from 2014 through 2017.

“The average is $1.5 million. Our town tax is $2 million. We could drop 75 percent of the tax and we’d be in fantastic shape,” he said.

Board members noted that the transfers went to long-term expenses, such as a $3.6 million highway garage to replace the one that is falling apart.

From 2008 through 2010, the town also didn’t buy any trucks, said Councilman Tony Metivier.

“We need to clean that up,” he said. “So why don’t we start buying? I don’t see the hardship in that.”

Whitehead came prepared with an answer. The town purchased four dump trucks, at nearly $250,000 each, in the last three years, he said.

After those purchases were made, the town was still able to set aside an average of $1.5 million a year, he said.

With “a little less money” saved up, the town might make better decisions about its spending, he added.

However, Whitehead agreed that the experiment in eliminating the town tax went too far. The town’s savings dropped to zero in a few years after the tax was eliminated.

“That would also be the wrong thing to do,” Whitehead said.

Also speaking was resident Mark Westcott, who was, at the time, volunteer campaign manager for supervisor candidate Rachel Seeber. Westcott echoed Whitehead’s push for a lower tax rate.

Councilman Tim Brewer scoffed at that idea, saying, “And then next year we should bond a $5 million building?”

Yes, Westcott said.

“I think bonding is a very viable alternative ... spread those payments out,” he said.

That way the building is not “on the backs of senior citizens,” he added.

He wasn’t the only one advocating for borrowing.

“The very reason you folks have been given the power to bond is to spread the cost of the item through its useful life, so the people paying for it are the ones benefiting from it,” said resident John Salvadore. “Basically, we are overtaxed.”

The Town Board voted on the proposed budget after Ward 3 Councilman George Ferone was sworn into office. He took the seat vacated by Councilman Doug Irish, who resigned several months after moving out of state. Ferone also ran unopposed in last week’s election.

The board voted 3-2 in favor of the budget, with Ferone and Councilman Brian Clements voting no.

Also up for debate last week was whether the tax rate is truly going down, considering that property values rose an average of 18 percent after a revaluation in 2014.

Before the reval, the average single-family house in Queensbury was assessed at $208,800 after the equalization rate was taken into account, according to Assessor Teri Ross. After the reval, the average rose to $257,900, she said.

The tax rate was $0.603 per $1,000 of assessed property in 2014. The rate for 2018 will be $0.539.

That means the average tax bill for a single-family house was $125.91 in 2014 and will be $139.01 next year, even though the tax rate went down 8.8 percent.

Supervisor John Strough had argued that tax bills are going down with the tax rate, but Whitehead pointed out that due to the change in assessment, people are paying more even though the tax rate is going down.