A MURDER TRIAL ASSIGNED
Thomas M. Stark
On September 17, 1975, I was contacted by the assignment judge of the County Court, who advised me that a murder trial pending in that court had been transferred by the county administrative judge to the Criminal Term of the Supreme Court, where I was presiding. The murder trial was that of Ronald Joseph DeFeo Jr., who was accused of killing six members of his own family at their home in Amityville, Long Island, during the early morning hours of November 13, 1974.
Along with the populace of Suffolk County, I was already familiar with this case. When the murders were discovered, the fact that an entire family of father, mother, and four children had been found dead in their beds of gunshot wounds was the leading story on that night’s local television and radio news broadcasts and in the area newspapers the following morning. After the eldest DeFeo son was arrested on the afternoon of November 14, 1974, and charged with the killings, the case became even more newsworthy…..
…The trial commenced on Monday, October 6, 1975, with jury selection. That day was the opening of the October term of the courts, and about 600 people were coming to Riverhead for jury service. I asked the commissioner of jurors to separate 120 people upon their arrival and keep them apart from the others. There had been considerable publicity about the pretrial hearing and the upcoming trial, and I wanted to minimize gossip about the DeFeo trial among those reporting to Riverhead that morning.
I moved to a larger courtroom for jury selection. This courtroom had many more spectator seats and could accommodate the 120 prospective jurors. Before the prospective jurors entered the courtroom, DeFeo was already seated at the counsel table with [attorney William E.] Weber. DeFeo was a husky man, five feet, eight inches, 175 pounds. When arrested he was bearded with a mustache, sideburns, and collar-length hair. At the trial he was clean-shaven with only a small mustache and shorter hair. He was dressed in the same outfit he was to wear during the entire trial: light brown plaid jacket, dark green slacks, and a yellow shirt (unbuttoned over his upper chest) with no tie.
As I entered the courtroom, with the prospective jurors present, the clerk announced the name of the case on trial: “The People of the State of New York against Ronald Joseph DeFeo Jr.” There was an audible gasp from a prospective juror—“Jesus Christ, it’s the DeFeo trial”—head shaking within the group, and the sound of murmuring. Obviously, some recalled reading about the sensational murders nearly eleven months earlier.