QUEENSBURY - A judge on Thursday told twice-convicted murderer Heath B. Russell that he wished he could sentence him to death for the brutal 2003 killing of Russell's ex-girlfriend's mother.
Since the state's death penalty statute was declared unconstitutional last year, though, acting Warren County Judge Philip Berke could only impose on Russell the maximum prison term of 25 years to life.
"If there was ever a case that warranted the death penalty, this is it," Berke told Russell.
He called the injuries to Finelli among the worst he had seen during his 40-year career in the criminal justice system and closed his remarks by wishing Russell "nothing but the worst" in prison.
Berke's remarks capped an emotional, 55-minute proceeding that saw the daughter, grandsons, niece and friends of victim Dorothy Finelli confront Russell in court.
Among the most poignant was Finelli's teenage grandson, Christopher Hayes, who wept, as he recalled walks in Lake George and visits to the family's favorite Chinese restaurant with his grandmother.
"I shared so much with my grandma," he said.
Hayes added he believed Russell was a "drug-addicted maniac," and questioned how he could have hurt a woman he said he loved.
Finelli's daughter, Vicki Hayes, of Hadley, cried as she remembered her mother as a kind person with a "heart of gold," who always remembered people's birthdays
"Every day I suffer. Every day my life suffers," she said.
Vicki Hayes recalled how she was "devastated" the March day earlier this year when Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan called to tell her Russell's 2004 conviction for murder in Finelli's death had been overturned by an appeals court on a technicality related to jury selection.
She also said she wished the death penalty could be imposed but asked that Russell never be released from prison.
"It scares me to death that one day he may be released," Vicki Hayes said.
Hogan also asked for the maximum sentence, pointing out that Russell could have stopped during his attack of Finelli before he killed her, but he instead strangled her and tried to hide her body in Viele Pond.
"He thought he was smarter than anybody else. He thought if he strangled her and put her in a watery grave, he could get away with it," she said.
Wearing a blue suit and with his hands handcuffed throughout the proceeding - four court security and Warren County Sheriff's officers standing behind him - Russell did not offer a statement during the sentencing. Twice, Berke asked him if there was anything he wanted to say, and twice he replied, "No, your honor."
In imposing a sentence of 25 years to life, Berke also recommended Russell not be paroled. He will not be eligible for parole until October 2028.
Russell's lawyer, Marc Zuckerman, said Thursday a notice of appeal would be filed in the case.
Authorities believe he killed Finelli at her home the evening of Oct. 23, 2002, during an argument over his stormy relationship with Vicki Hayes, which had ended weeks earlier.
Russell denied he was responsible for Finelli's death but has not testified at either of his two trials in the case. Her blood was found in his truck, on his construction trailer and on the driveway of his home in the days after her killing.
Vicki Hayes said after the proceeding she was not surprised Russell has not spoken up during any of the proceedings in the case.
"It didn't matter what he was going to say. Whatever he had to say, it was going to be a lie," she said. "I just want him to go to jail. He needs to suffer for what he did."
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