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Thursday, June 15, 2000
A death, a trial, acquittal and 'back to the farm'
By Hart Seely

Cameras filled the courtroom. The famous writer Dominick Dunne sat in the gallery. The judge warned jury members not to discuss book deals.
"Delbert Ward did not murder his brother," defense lawyer Ralph Cognetti said in his opening statement. He described his client as "a child in the body of a man."
Lyman Ward
Ward brothers' friend Harry Thurston, left, and Lyman Ward join a recent reunion of the Wards and their supporters.
(Michelle Gabel)
Image copied from Syracuse Online
"The death of William Ward was at the hands of his brother," District Attorney Donald Cerio countered, showing Delbert's four-page confession.

The prosecution called neighbors, relatives and police investigators, including Eugene Rifenburg, who took Delbert's confession hours after Bill Ward died in the bed they shared. Cerio called Onondaga County Assistant Medical Examiner Humphrey Germaniuk, who had ruled the cause of Bill's death as suffocation.

The battle stressed its contestants. Cerio felt chest pains. Cognetti couldn't eat; his weight slipped to 110. Joe Spadafore, a private investigator working for the defense, had put his life and business on hold.

A week before the trial, Cognetti had offered a plea bargain: He'd let Delbert plead guilty to manslaughter, if the court guaranteed probation.

"I would have pleaded him to anything, as long as it would have kept him out of jail," Cognetti now says. But the offer came dead on arrival. Cerio would not let a manslaughter conviction go without jail time. And Delbert's friends, certain of his innocence, wanted no compromises.

So the case now hinged on two testimonies - Delbert and Lyman Ward. And once they took the stand, all bets were off.

Lyman took the oath late on a Tuesday. After a few warm-up questions, Cerio raised the statement Lyman signed the night of Bill's death.

"Did there ever come a time when you and Delbert talked about ending Bill's life?" the prosecutor asked.

"No," Lyman replied.

Even over the court's public address amplifiers, Lyman's raspy voice barely carried to the jury. He sounded hoarse, breathless.

Though most watchers that day fretted over Lyman's health, Thurston and Spadafore marveled at how well he looked. Compared to how they'd seen him, Lyman looked great. They feared Cerio would pummel him with questions, tie him into knots. This wasn't the Lyman they knew. This was a zombie, zoned-out on tranquilizers.

On the ride home, Thurston laid down the law.

"I told him, 'I'm picking you up in the morning, and you're not taking these,' " Thurston said. "Then I called the district attorney and said they better have a damn rescue squad for him tomorrow."

With Thurston as keeper of the pills, a drug-free Lyman Ward shook a whole cup of coffee to the ground before he entered the court.

Cerio asked a few questions. Lyman seemed to shrink. Wheezing groaned from the courtroom speakers. Cerio backed off, then gingerly tried a few more questions. Lyman sank lower, head drooping below his shoulders. Cerio asked if he was OK. By now, Lyman had nearly fallen out of his seat. He said nothing for five, 10 seconds. In the gallery, several women were crying.

Judge William O'Brien III called a recess and ordered the court cleared. As bailiffs moved in, a woman's angry voice broke over the hush: "They don't treat animals that bad!"

Attendants guided Lyman into the judge's chambers, where he met with Cognetti, Cerio and Thurston.

"I told them, 'You're just lucky he didn't die,' " Thurston remembered. "And Cerio, he was the color of paper."

Nine days later, Delbert Ward took the witness stand. He testified the murder confession he gave state police was not true.

"I was nervous and shook up," he said. "I hadn't eaten all day. I was tired. My brother had just passed away. ... I don't know why I said it. I thought if I said yes, they would let me go home. But they didn't."

On cross-examination, Cerio tried a new strategy. He quizzed Delbert's basic knowledge. What were his brothers' birthdays? The capital of the United States? The freezing temperature of water? He asked Delbert to do some math. He moved from subject to subject. Delbert knew the answers, did the equations and watched Harry Thurston's unwavering finger.

Cerio's tactic was simple: Show that Delbert was smarter than they claimed. Cognetti had submitted a psychological profile that placed Delbert's I.Q. at 69: too simple-minded to see the implications of his murder confession. The prosecution's profile put Delbert's I.Q. as high as 80: enough to know what was going on.

"Mr. Ward," the D.A. said. "Do you remember being asked the question, 'After Bill went to sleep, what did you decide to do?' "

"Yes. I remember being asked that."

"And do you remember answering, 'I decided to put my hand over his mouth. I reached around behind him with my right hand and put it over his mouth?' "

"I said that, but that's not how I did it."

"How did you do it, Mr. Ward?"

"I didn't do it. That's how they told me I did it. They showed me. I said I didn't. They said I did. I said I didn't. They said I did."

Thurston's finger sat on the bridge of his nose. He never intended to move it.

It was after 11:30 p.m. when the jury came back with its verdict. By then, Cognetti was stealing naps beneath a table in the defense room, and Cerio was sitting in his office with the lights out, flipping a baseball into the air and catching it. Outside, Thurston and Spadafore kept a coffee-fueled vigil. They wondered how they'd break the news to Lyman and Roscoe that Delbert was going to jail. How would the boys keep the farm? How would they live?

The jury voted four times. On the first ballot, four members declared Delbert guilty. Ten hours later, they changed their minds.

The not guilty verdict brought wild cheers and chants of "Del-bert! Del-bert!" Spadafore hugged Thurston. Town of Stockbridge Supervisor Charles Young lost his voice and couldn't do a radio interview. Facing the halogen lights, Delbert looked dazed but happy.

"I'm going back to the farm," he told the microphones. "We're gonna have a big party."

Cerio marched into his office to decompress. He stayed late, waiting for the hordes to leave. Co-workers visited, as if to pay respects. It could have been a funeral but for the noise.

"I remember sitting there, listening to the cars," Cerio said. "I knew I was going to carry this with me for a while."

Blaring car horns trumpeted the verdict 11 miles from Wampsville to Munnsville. Some cars pulled into the American Legion for post-victory toasts. The next day, streams of well-wishers and reporters drove to the Wards' house, as the jubilant boys shook hands or scribbled their autographs onto the morning newspaper.

Their new lives had begun.

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