MAYVILLE - Jason Wells has been found guilty of the lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter in the death of his friend and neighbor, Ruth Schumacher Fisk.
After 34 witnesses, seven days of testimony and nine-and-a-half hours of closed-door deliberations in Chautauqua County Court, the jury of six men and six women concluded Wells experienced and acted upon an extreme emotional disturbance when he beat, stabbed and strangled Fisk, 81, to death on Feb. 4, 2010 in his apartment at Fredonia's One Temple Square complex.
The jury reached its decision around 12:35 p.m. after resuming deliberations at 10 a.m. on Monday.
Wells, 41, was indicted on a charge of second-degree murder, a crime punishable by 25 years to life behind bars.
With the jury's verdict, Wells now faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison with five years of post-release supervision, according to Chautauqua County District Attorney David Foley.
"It obviously was an option for the jury to find extreme emotional disturbance and I respect their decision," Foley told the OBSERVER. "It was a difficult sort of situation and they had a lot of information, a lot of it being psychological, to choose from, and they took their time with this."
The DA distinguished the case as complex and added it was different from what previous homicide trials have revolved around.
"(Namely,) me putting in proof (that someone committed a crime) and the defense either putting on a defense just to the proof, or not doing anything," he explained. "This time, you had this whole separate issue with the affirmative defenses (of insanity or extreme emotional disturbance). I will say the extreme emotional disturbance (defense), even though it's (considered) manslaughter, is still an intentional, violent crime."
Foley pointed out the jury did not accept the insanity defense, which meant they agreed Wells at least understood he was killing a person as he committed the homicide. The DA believed the jury was correct in coming to that consensus.
Judge John T. Ward gave Wells and his defense attorney, Lyle Hajdu, two weeks to consider if they would like to challenge the verdict or make any post-decision motions, which is normal procedure. After that time, a sentencing date will get hashed out.
"This was a troubling, difficult case for all involved," Hajdu said outside the courtroom, noting he would prefer not to answer too many questions until after the two-week time period. "This was a senseless murder of an elderly woman by someone diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. We presented a psychiatric defense and the jury decided and agreed with the defense regarding extreme emotional disturbance, that it was paranoid delusions that drove Jason to kill.
"We've been wrestling with this case since 2010, and I believe Judge Ward provided for a fair trial and Mr. Foley proved the homicide."
Hajdu gave no indication he would challenge the verdict, but said he would have to converse with his client before any decision is made.
Juror Vince Joy of Jamestown spoke with the media on behalf of his fellow panel members. He stated the jury talked extensively over the course of the two days of deliberations, which provided for a verdict all 12 of them were satisfied with.
"At the start (of deliberations), we did an initial vote and I wouldn't say it was 'close,' and some discussion did put us farther away (on Friday)," Joy said. "There were different points of view we considered, and by 8 p.m., we figured we were burnt out and that we should return (Monday) to give us all some time to think things over and start fresh."
Joy pointed out the diversity of the jury brought with it some diverse thinking, with three generations represented on the panel. He added everyone listened to each other and wanted to make sure they arrived at the proper verdict.
"This was really difficult; it wasn't a cut-and-dry trial," Joy concluded. "There were different ways to weigh so many things."
Family members of Fisk and a friend of Wells were present in the courtroom for the verdict, but declined to comment afterward.
Wells is currently housed with the general population in the county jail after returning there from a two-year stay at the Central New York Psychiatric Center last October.
The OBSERVER published Fisk's obituary on Feb. 8, 2010. It stated that Fisk was born March 1, 1928 in Buffalo to John and Helen Schumacher. She graduated from Kensington High School in 1945 and entered the Deaconess Hospital Nursing Program, later working at the Buffalo Public Library for 13 years.
Once she moved to Dunkirk, she married William "Bill" Fisk. The couple resided at the Dunkirk Conference Center as the on-site caretakers there for 35 years.
"She ... set out to pursue a degree as a Registered Nurse at Trocaire College and finally achieved her goal at the age of 51," the obituary read. "She worked at Brooks Memorial Hospital beginning as a nurse's aide and then as an RN until her retirement in 1993.
"Ruth cherished her time with her family, her animals, playing bingo and pinochle, her profession and shopping.
"Anyone who knew Ruth knew she was feisty, had a great sense of humor and was a shrewd card player. She lived a long life full of challenges and love. She has touched many lives and will be missed and remembered by all."
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