Guilty But Alive
On September 4, 1998 , Kendall Francois was indicted in Dutchess County Court for murder in the death of Catina Newmaster. The indictment came as the relentless search for bodies continued at 99 Fulton Avenue. Forensic experts had already been summoned to assist county investigators in the post mortem examinations. Special x-ray devices were utilized at the home to locate bones and other body pieces that may have been hidden inside walls or buried on the property.
In the pouring rain, the search continued. Onlookers in the street huddled underneath umbrellas as the media took up a watch across the street from the Francois home. Some small trees and bushes that were growing in front of the property were cut down by the police and were laying in a pile on the sidewalk. Flower bouquets and other memorabilia from victim's families and friends sat under a tree near the Francois home. An eerie quiet permeated the scene and even the drenching rain could not wash away the sadness of the crowd at 99 Fulton Avenue. A few blocks away, at the Holy Trinity Church, a memorial service was held for the victims on Tuesday night. The Rev. Richard LaMorte offered comfort to victims' loved ones and police alike, who had been searching the house for a week with no break. He said to the press: "in tragedies like this, you need a religious experience. I realize some of those police are my parishioners."
The following day, on Wednesday, September 9, 1998, the public got its first look at Kendall Francois as he appeared in Dutchess County Court to enter a plea. Wearing black pants and a white shirt, the big man stood silently before Judge Thomas J. Dolan as a plea of "not guilty" was entered. Kendall showed no emotion and seemed distant from the proceedings.
Some of the spectators became enraged. "He killed my daughter!" the mother of one of the victim's cried. Others almost had to be removed from the courtroom by officers who struggled to control their emotional outbursts. But when court officers asked some spectators to leave, Judge Dolan permitted all the families to remain.
In his next appearance on October 13, 1998, he was formally charged with eight counts of first-degree murder, eight counts of second-degree murder and one count of attempted assault. In the state of New York, first-degree murder includes serial murder. Upon conviction of this charge, Francois could receive the death penalty. His attorneys were well aware of this and, as a result, on December 23, they attempted to enter a plea of guilty to the murders.
In the state of New York, prosecutors have 120 days from indictment of first-degree murder to decide whether to pursue the death penalty and must then notify the court of that intent. A death penalty in New York can only be imposed by a jury, therefore a defendant who avoids a trial removes the threat of capital punishment. As a result, Francois' plea of guilty to a Murder 1 indictment, prior to prosecution's notification to court that they intend to seek the death penalty, spared his life. The very next day, District Attorney Grady announced that his office would seek the death penalty in Francois' case. However, the status of Francois' guilty plea was unclear.
On February 11, 1999 the matter was decided in Dutchess County Court when Judge Dolan ruled that the death penalty law, in the way it currently applies, does not permit a plea of guilty prior to prosecution's filing of a death penalty case. The defense team appealed the decision and the matter headed over to the State Court of Appeals, one of the most liberal minded courts in the nation. The case was heard on March 31, 2000. At issue was the crucial question of whether Kendall Francois, and other future murder suspects who face execution, will be able to avoid the death penalty, ironically, by admitting to their crimes. The Appeals Court ruled that a defendant may not plea prior to the D.A.'s filing notice of a death penalty case.
On the morning of August 7, 2000, the Dutchess County courthouse was packed with spectators, friends and family members of the murder victims. They sat for hours, their grief and anger steadily building for what was to come. Then, at 1:10 p.m., a sudden hush fell over the room. A side door opened and Kendall Francois, his huge six-foot-four frame towering over the deputies, was led into the court. He had on a dark blue button-down shirt, black pants and wore thin, wire frame glasses. A few people cursed at him as he sat in his seat and stared straight ahead.
As arranged through the District Attorney's Office and the defense team, Kendall Francois was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the killing of eight women. He could be confined to his cell for as much as 23 hours a day. The families of the victims were allowed to make statements to the court as Francois sat in his chair. At times, their rage and tears overwhelmed the court. "You took the child I had waited so many years for," said Marguerite Marsh, mother of victim Catherine Marsh. "You are a cold-blooded killer, Francois!" said an aunt of another victim.
Francois declined to make any statement but said through his attorney: "He is deeply sorry for his actions." He was led slowly out of the court in chains as some spectators continued to curse him. On August 10, 2000, Francois was processed into New York's toughest prison, Attica, where he remains today, inmate #A4160.
The ending to the story of Kendall Francois and "los desaparecidos" has been written. However, for one family, the saga continues. Michelle Eason, the only African American among the missing, has not been found. As of May, 2000, she was still missing. "Although I believed that she was a part of this in the beginning, I don't believe it anymore" Lt. Siegrist recently said, "All the girls involved in the Francois case were white and were found inside Francois' home." There are no new leads in her case. As in all missing persons incidents, however, there are many possibilities. But up to now, her disappearance remains a total mystery.