Oswego (WSYR-TV) -- Erin Maxwell was 11 years old when police found her body inside a home in Palermo.
Her step-brother was tried, convicted of killing her and hauled off to prison for 25-years to life. That was two years ago.
Fast forward to this week and killer Alan Jones is waiting to be re-sentenced for a lesser crime. Due to a gray area in the legal system, an appellate court reduced his murder conviction to manslaughter.
"If someone is murdered, then someone should have to pay,” said Justice for Erin member Colleen Scott, who attended the original trial against Jones.
The law is not so simple. The state supreme court appellate division found that prosecutors failed to sufficiently establish a key element -- depraved indifference.
"When you recklessly cause somebody's death...that is manslaughter, and that becomes Murder when and only when there is this additional evidence of Depraved Indifference,” explained Attorney Emil Rossi, who was not involved in the Jones case.
After Alan Jones was arrested, prosecutors knew it would be a challenge to prove he intentionally killed Maxwell. There was debate in the Oswego County District Attorney's office about how to move forward. Former D.A. Donald Dodd decided to pursue the depraved indifference category of second degree Murder.
"Depraved indifference murder is murder that is committed when the defendant did not intend the death, but where his conduct was so grievous, it is as if he had intended it," Rossi continued.
Rossi calls the definition of depraved indifference "hopelessly vague." In recent years, debate in the legal community has been fueled by a flurry of appeals, in which the court has attempted to clarify the charge.
In the Jones decision, the justices used a previous case (People v. Suarez) to identify two patterns that justify a depraved indifference murder conviction in situations where one person kills another:
1.) "When the defendant intends neither to seriously injure, nor to kill, but nevertheless abandons a helpless and vulnerable victim in circumstances where the victim is highly likely to die."
2.) "The second is when the defendant - acting with a conscious objective not to kill but to harm - engages in torture or a brutal, prolonged and ultimately fatal course of conduct against a particularly vulnerable victim."
In order to dispute the first pattern, Jones' lawyer showed his client called 911, administered CPR and waited for help. For the second pattern, the justices reviewed testimony from an EMT who did not find extensive bruising on Maxwell's body as evidence of prolonged brutality. The Medical Examiner also testified that the victim was strangled for no more than five minutes.
"That's what creates the gray area. The Court of Appeals and the Appellate Courts haven't specified. They've never told us that look, unless it’s a half-hour, it’s not prolonged enough, unless it’s an hour it’s not prolonged enough. Frankly, we're left in the dark to guess,” said Oswego County District Attorney Gregory Oakes, who took over the office after Dodd's departure.
The court ruled that the actions of Alan Jones recklessly caused the death of Erin Maxwell...a component of manslaughter, but did not fit the patterns of depraved indifference murder.
“The public division determination is a step in the right direction, but we submit they didn't go far enough,” said Alan Jones’ Attorney John Cirando. “And under the law, the charges should have been dismissed.”
Oswego County Court Judge Walter Hafner will be in charge of re-sentencing. With the murder conviction, Jones faced 25 years to life in prison. The reduced manslaughter charge carries a 5-15 year maximum sentence.
"It’s a case that tears at everybody's heart and because of that we sometimes become frustrated with decisions that really have a terrific legal basis," Rossi continued. "This was the right decision in this case.”
Oswego County's current DA, Gregory Oakes said he believes the conviction would have held up under the old standard of depraved indifference murder, before the appeals court attempted to clarify the terms. He'll appeal for the charge to be reinstated.
“Quite frankly, the fact that someday he will be released from state prison sickens me. He deserves to spend every remaining day in jail,” Oakes said.
Oakes hopes the case will spur state legislators to take a closer look at the law, offering courts a clearer definition of depraved indifference murder in order to avoid similar appeals in the future.