Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Real Life Amityville Horror

The Trial

Ronald DeFeo mugshots
Ronald DeFeo mugshots

Butch DeFeo's case came to trial on Tuesday, October 14, 1975, almost one year after the murders took place. The prosecution of DeFeo, the responsibility to see to it that such a man would never be a danger to anyone in the community again, rested with Gerard Sullivan, assistant district attorney with Suffolk County, NY. Despite DeFeo's confession, despite the fact that he had been able to lead investigators to the exact spot where he had disposed of the evidence, and despite the fact that Butch's .35-caliber rifle was positively ID'd as the murder weapon, Sullivan took no chances in his approach to prosecuting. During the period of pre-trial interviews and jury selection, Sullivan had studied DeFeo, questioned him, observed how he behaved and interacted with others. He knew that Butch was a pathological liar, that he was evasive. He had retained well-known area attorney William Weber for his defense; his pattern of behavior before the murders would afford Weber the opportunity to plead innocence by reason of insanity on his client's behalf. But Sullivan knew that Butch DeFeo was not crazy, was indeed a violent, cold-blooded killer, and he was determined to put him away for good. His opening statement to the jury was crucial, as it would set the stage in his attempt to reveal the truth about DeFeo's criminal character. He could not afford to take for granted that the jury would see DeFeo as he did, as a sane, methodical murderer.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury," he said, "each of you will be changed to some degree by this case. You will leave this courtroom after rendering a verdict perhaps a month from now, carrying with you an abiding memory of the horror that occurred in that house at 112 Ocean Avenue in the dead of night eleven months ago."

"Bear in mind that the evidence establishing and bearing upon how these crimes were carried out is as important to your verdict as the proof bearing upon who carried them out," he continued, anticipating an insanity defense. "Much of the evidence of 'How?' will bear upon the issue of whether you will excuse the defendant for his action by reason of some mental disease or defect. If you will keep your minds open, carefully evaluate and assess all the proofs, I'm confident that at the end of the case you will come back into this courtroom and find Ronald DeFeo, Jr., guilty of six counts of murder in the second degree."

William Weber
William Weber

The question of DeFeo's mental state at the time of the murders would remain the defining piece of evidence upon which his acquittal or conviction would rest. Prior to the trial, Weber had shrewdly attempted to have the case dismissed outright, alleging that Butch had been refused access to counsel right before the police took his confession. He further contended that the confession itself was obtained under duress, the product of physical abuse on the part of the police. Neither of these claims stood up under scrutiny, however, and Weber was left to defend his client's actions on the grounds that he was legally insane at the time they took place.

Sullivan was prescient enough to see that a one-dimensional argument that DeFeo was in fact sane and responsible for his actions might not be enough to convince the jury of his guilt. Sullivan called a number of witnesses, including police officers and detectives who had worked the case, and assorted relatives and friends of Butch's. Through their testimony, he sought to present to the jury a more three-dimensional portrait of the man who was capable of murdering six defenseless family members. But no witness offered him this opportunity more so than DeFeo himself.

Weber called his witness and led the questioning, predictably leading his client to supply responses that would burnish DeFeo's claim of insanity. Holding a picture of his mother as she lay slain in her bed, Weber asked his client, "Ronnie, that's your mother, isn't it?"

"No, Sir," Butch responded. "I told you before and I'll say it again. I never saw this person before in my life. I don't know who this person is."

Weber proceeded to show Butch a photo of his father's body, and asked, "Butch, did you kill your father?"

"Did I kill him? I killed them all. Yes, Sir. I killed them all in self-defense."

Sullivan wore his straightest poker face, while some members of the jury gasped out loud in response to DeFeo's courtroom confession. Weber continued unfazed, asking why Butch had done such a thing.

"As far as I'm concerned, if I didn't kill my family, they were going to kill me. And as far as I'm concerned, what I did was self-defense and there was nothing wrong with it. When I got a gun in my hand, there's no doubt in my mind who I am. I am God."

To the average layman member of the jury, DeFeo's testimony might have seemed to be that of a deranged lunatic, someone with a fleeting grasp on reality. And it was precisely this possibility, the possibility that DeFeo would escape judgment by duping the jury, that Sullivan worked the hardest to prevent. He wasted no time in assaulting DeFeo's testimony during cross-examination. He ridiculed Butch's seeming inability to remember who his own mother was, he exposed inconsistencies between his testimony and the statement he gave police on the night of the crime. Most of all, Sullivan pushed DeFeo's buttons, aggressively set forth to rattle his composure, to enflame his arrogance and hatred. Sullivan wanted the jury to see that, rather than the victim of insanity, Ronnie "Butch" DeFeo, Jr., was a lucid, devious, cold-blooded killer.

His questions began to center around the murders themselves, and DeFeo's conflicting accounts of his actions that night. Sullivan knew that he would not be able to get a straight accounting from Butch in regard to what had transpired, but he did know that he could goad the murderer into revealing the twisted sense of enjoyment he got from killing his entire family.

"You felt good at the time?" he asked.

"Yes, Sir. I believe it felt very good," Butch responded.

"Is that because you knew they were dead, because you had given them each two shots?"

"I don't know why. I can't answer that honestly."

"Do you remember being glad?"

"I don't remember being glad. I remember feeling very good. Good."

Sullivan's efforts to this end culminated in his provoking Butch to the point where he actually threatened the prosecutor's life. "You think I'm playing," he barked hatefully from the stand. "If I had any sense, which I don't, I'd come down there and kill you now."

The ability to prove or disprove DeFeo's mental state at the time of the killings was crucial to the success of both his defense and prosecution. Leaving nothing to chance, both sides had retained the services of two local, highly reputable psychiatrists. Dr. Daniel Schwartz was retained for the defense, and was no stranger to criminal proceedings. He had interviewed a number of defendants, testifying in hundreds of cases. He would later gain widespread national notoriety as the psychiatrist who found David Berkowitz to be criminally insane in the wake of the Son of Sam slayings.

Sullivan was aware of the crucial juncture the trial had now reached. All of the groundwork he had laid, all of his attempts to flesh out Butch DeFeo's murderous persona for the trial would be for naught if he were to allow Weber and Schwartz to take control of this final stage of the trial. Despite the fact that he had retained the services of another very prominent psychiatrist, Sullivan knew that he had to rely on his skills as a prosecutor and cross-examiner as on the abilities of his expert witness. As he wrote in his account of the trial, "The jurors had been learning about DeFeo and his murders for almost two months. They had listened to his lies and vituperation for days. Dr. Schwartz had only talked to him for hours. I would show that the psychiatrist didn't know the real Butch DeFeo."

As it happened, Sullivan caught a fortunate break in the form of Weber's questioning of his own witness. In a move that could clearly be interpreted as overconfidence in Schwartz's ability on the stand, Weber posed only a few preliminary questions to his witness, then proceeded to let Schwartz blithely deliver a mini-lecture on psychosis, disassociation, and criminal insanity. Sullivan noticed that the jury was indeed affected by his professional delivery, by what appeared to be his expert grasp of the subject and how it applied to Butch DeFeo's actions on the night of November 14, 1974. Despite this, Sullivan silently noted a number of key points Schwartz had made which Weber failed to challenge or ask Schwartz to expand upon. He smiled, silently planning to do so himself during cross.

Sullivan opened his line of questioning by referring to Schwartz's prior experience as an expert witness, attempting to rattle him by demonstrating the extent to which he had researched the witness. Seeing that this provided only limited benefit over a short period of time, Sullivan moved swiftly to the case at hand, contesting Schwartz's characterization of DeFeo's behavior after he had slain his family.

"Is this not indicative of a person who has gone to very careful lengths to remove evidence of the crime, that would connect him to that crime, out of that house?" Sullivan asked incredulously.

"It's evidence of somebody who is trying to remove evidence from himself, too, that he has done this," Schwartz responded. "We are now speculating as to the motive for the cleaning up. If you are familiar with Lady Mac Beth's complaint — 'What, will these hands never be clean?' — she's not hiding a murder from anyone, but she can't live with the imagined blood on her hands."

Sullivan didn't buy a word of it, and was determined not to let the jury buy it, either. "Doctor," he roared, "is that your considered psychiatric opinion?"

"My considered psychiatric opinion, Counselor, is that he's not hiding this crime from anybody by picking up the shells," Schwartz retorted hotly. "The bodies are there. The bullets are in the people."

"Everything that he could get that would connect him with the crime, he removed from the house, didn't he?" pressed Sullivan.

"What you are talking about is trivia compared to the six bodies," Schwartz responded flatly.

His indifferent response ignited the prosecutor's sense of outrage. "Trivia that he removed the evidence out of that house that would connect him to the crime, trivia that has nothing to do with whether he thought that the crime was wrong?" thundered Sullivan.

"The evidence is there in the victims," was Schwartz's only response. But Sullivan had him on the run, the respectability of his earlier testimony vanishing, receding in the face of the prosecutor's furious onslaught. Sullivan next took aim at Schwartz's actual diagnosis of DeFeo as a neurotic.

"So it's your testimony, as I understand it, Dr. Schwartz, that the fact that it wasn't too bright to throw everything in that sewer drain all together in one location is significant of the fact that it was neurotic that he did this?" Schwartz responded affirmatively, noting that DeFeo appeared to be acting without any clear purpose in mind, someone distracted by paranoid, neurotic delusions. In doing so, he fell straight into Sullivan's trap, a trap constructed with the very notes Schwartz had taken during his interview of Butch.

"Did he tell you about not wanting to leave clues for the police?" asked Sullivan. He indicated the passage in Schwartz's notes where DeFeo had made exactly such a statement.

"I asked him about the casings, and he said he didn't want to leave the police any clues as to what kind of gun it had been. He was not a friend of the cops, and he didn't want to help them."

The trap was sprung, Schwartz was now caught in his own testimony, and Sullivan stood triumphantly over his prey. "Okay, now you know why he removed the casings, don't you?" he asked derisively.

"I know one of the reasons. There are others," Schwartz responded angrily. But his testimony had been fatally wounded by Sullivan's aggressive questioning. "I have no further questions," the prosecutor announced as he strode back to his table.

Dr. Harold Zolan testified for the prosecution. Unlike Weber's style of questioning his expert witness, Sullivan devised an elaborate question-and-answer exchange with Zolan, making every deliberate effort to give the jury access to Zolan's thought process, so that they might come to understand how Zolan had reached his assessment, and that they might even reach the same assessment themselves. Unlike Schwartz, Zolan attributed DeFeo's behavior to an antisocial personality, a form of personality disorder he distinguished from any form of mental illness. Essentially, those with such a personality disorder are fully aware of their actions, are fully able to comprehend the difference between right and wrong, but are motivated by an imperious, self-centered attitude. Sullivan and his witness were thorough in their dissection of DeFeo, presenting an ironclad case to the jury in crystal-clear language that Butch was indeed responsible for his actions on the night of November 14, 1974. While Weber tried to rattle Zolan as Sullivan had rattled Schwartz, the prosecution's witness held fast to his diagnosis. Sullivan was confident that between his methodical questioning and Zolan's well-thought-out responses, the jury was finally in possession of clinical evidence that Butch was guilty of murder.

After each expert witness had been questioned and cross-examined, a few more witnesses were called by Sullivan to testify. While not central to his case, their additional testimony helped to bolster Sullivan's case against DeFeo. However, the verdict of innocence or guilt rested upon the question of DeFeo's sanity, as he knew it would. Weber and Sullivan made their summations. Then, on Wednesday, November 19, 1975, a year and five days since the murders, the presiding judge instructed the jury to gather in the deliberation chamber, and return to the court with a verdict for Ronald "Butch" DeFeo, Jr.

A more recent photo of Ronald DeFeo
A more recent photo
of Ronald DeFeo

Despite Sullivan's painstaking efforts, he knew that a guilty verdict was not a sure bet. He was rewarded for his skepticism when the jury's first vote came back 10-2, with two holdouts who were still uncertain about DeFeo's mental state at the time of the murders. After reviewing transcripts of DeFeo's testimony, however, the vote came back at a unanimous 12-0. On Friday, November 21, 1975, Ronald DeFeo, Jr., was found guilty of six counts of second-degree murder. Two weeks later he was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison on all six counts. He remains incarcerated with the New York State Department of Corrections today.

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