On March 22, 2008, 54-year-old Robert Sepe killed his girlfriend, Janette Carlucci, with an aluminum baseball bat inside their Westchester County home. He explained during his murder trial that the pressure over throwing a family Easter party had driven him to commit the brutal crime.
“The party was looming on my mind: How am I going to deal with these people, how am I going to handle all these people, I can’t do it,” he testified. “I lost control. I don’t know how to explain it.”
The 12 jurors convicted him of second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of 25 years to life.
Last month, however, an appeals court changed that verdict. There had been no new evidence over the three years since the trial. Rather, three of the five State Supreme Court Appellate Division judges simply disagreed with the jury’s conclusion. The court reduced Sepe’s conviction to first-degree manslaughter, which carries a sentence of five to 25 years. Sepe, who has been locked up for more than five years, will be eligible for release as soon as he’s officially re-sentenced in the coming months.
The three-justice majority stated that jurors were wrong to reject the defense team’s argument that Sepe committed the crime while in a state of mental trauma–a mindset that causes a “loss of self-control.”
“The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that the defendant, who was in a fragile mental state, was actually influenced by an extreme emotional disturbance when he attacked Carlucci, with whom he had previously shared a loving relationship,” Judge Jeffrey Cohen wrote for the majority in the September 25 order. “We are convinced that the jury was not justified in concluding that the defendant was not under the influence of an extreme emotional disturbance, for which there was a reasonable explanation, when he attacked and killed Jeanette Carlucci.”
The opinion noted that Sepe had “a history of depression and a long history of anxiety and panic disorder that would manifest itself in panic attacks.”
He fell into a downward spiral in February 2008, about a month after Carlucci moved in with him. His business, which had already been struggling for a few years, faced a lawsuit. Even though he’d put down a deposit on an engagement ring for Carlucci, he began asking his ex-wife to take him back. There was also “a heated argument in which [Carlucci] refused to have sexual relations with [Sepe] and told him she had been unfaithful with one of his friends in retaliation for [his] similar conduct.”
Sepe told his sister he couldn’t sleep and that he “needed help,” and on March 1, she took him to Westchester Medical Center’s psychiatric emergency center. He spent one night.
As Easter approached, he grew more stressed over the prospect of hosting the family party.
The day before the party, Sepe testified, he woke up to a noise downstairs and grabbed an aluminum baseball bat as he checked for intruders. Upon finding none, his anxiety switched back to the party. He testified that he paced for “a couple of hours maybe, an hour and a half” because he was “worked up.”
He entered the bedroom and told Carlucci, “I think we have to cancel the party.”
In a “normal tone” she responded, “Are you crazy?”
“We can’t do this anymore,” he shot back. “I can’t do this anymore, I can’t do it anymore.”
Then he began hitting her with the bat. She ran out of the bedroom and he followed. The appeals court document describes the scene:
Carlucci had sustained a minimum of four blows to the skull consistent with being struck by an aluminum bat with “tremendous force.” There were four lacerations to the back of the head, the “entire skull” was fractured, and the brain matter was eviscerated. There was no brain tissue left in the skull. She also sustained a broken nose, fractured jaw, multiple lacerations to her forehead, ears, and eyelids, and abrasions to her cheeks, chin, and mouth. These injuries were consistent with “bone matter from being struck in the back of the head” and with being struck while face down on the bedroom floor.
Next page: the appeals court’s justification for reducing the conviction.
Sepe testified that he though about killing himself after that. He contemplated slitting his throat, suffocating himself with a plastic bag, and dropping weights on his neck.
The state troopers found him on an overpass, standing outside his car.
Both the prosecution and defense presented psychiatric experts. One said Sepe suffered from severe emotional disturbance; the other disagreed.
The jury believed that Sepe was in full control, and needed just one hour to reach the second-degree murder verdict.
The appeals court majority acknowledged that interpreting Sepe’s state of mind at the time of the crime is “subjective.” Whether Sepe has “reasonable explanation” for his emotional disturbance, however, is “an objective determination.”
And the three judges asserted that the jury made the wrong call: given Sepe’s mental history, the majority concluded, the tiff about the Easter party sent him into extreme emotional disturbance.
“We accord great deference to the jury’s opportunity to view the witnesses, hear the testimony, and observe demeanor,” Cohen wrote. However, “the court sits as a thirteenth juror and decides which facts were proven at trial. … Indeed, we find that the evidence supporting the defendant’s claim of extreme emotional disturbance was overwhelmingly preponderant.”
Justice Daniel Angiolillo, writing for the two dissenters, took the jury’s side, arguing, “Even considering this excuse in the context of the defendant’s months of problems … we do not find this excuse or explanation to be a reasonable one.”
The majority opinion, he suggested, “encroaches upon the jury’s function” in determining whether Sepe had reason to be triggered into madness.
“The jury’s verdict,” Angiolillo wrote, “was not against the weight of the evidence.”
Read the court order on the next page: [