Tina Balsano knows firsthand the horror that most parents haven't had to experience in even the worst of their nightmares.
Her pretty and popular 16-year-old daughter, Jennifer Bolender, was walking home on the night of Dec. 14, 2002, when she was set upon by a trio of teenage killers, brothers Christopher and Kyle Cummings and Daniel Pardee. With unspeakable savagery, the three brutally snuffed out Bolender's young life in a murder that shocked and revolted a city all too familiar with murders.
Niagara Falls homicide investigators quickly developed information on Pardee and the Cummings brothers, and the three mad-dog killers were arrested. But as more sickening details of the crime emerged, Tina Balsano was stunned to learn that, even if found guilty, Pardee and the Cummings brothers could receive as little as five years in the reformatory.
Because Kyle and Christopher Cummings were 14 and 15 at the time of the murder, and Pardee was 17, state law said they had to be sentenced as juveniles, even though they were being tried as adults.
"I couldn't believe it," Balsano told the Reporter. "It just didn't make sense to me."
That's when she decided to get involved.
"It was to late for us, but I thought there must be something I could do to help other families faced with this kind of tragedy," Balsano said.
In talks with homicide investigators and representatives of the Niagara County District Attorney's office, the distraught mother learned of a proposed new law, which had been introduced in 2001 and passed by the state Senate by an overwhelming 57-1 margin.
Penny's Law, named after a Salamanca woman murdered in 1999 by a 15-year-old, would have significantly increased the minimum sentences for teenagers found guilty of first-degree murder here.
"If the state Assembly would have passed it when the Senate did, it could have been used in the sentencing in Jennifer's case," Balsano said.
Balsano quickly discovered that state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and a powerful group of downstate Assembly members had successfully kept the legislation bottled up in committee for more than a year, refusing to allow it to come to the floor for a vote.
Outraged, Balsano decided to take the matter up with Rep. Francine Del Monte.
"I went to Francine to ask for her help on this," Balsano told the Reporter. "And she basically said there was nothing she could do about it. She refused to stand up to Sheldon Silver."
A spokesman for Silver said the speaker opposed Penny's Law out of concern that it might "disrupt the juvenile justice system" in New York state. The downstate Democrats put forward a competing bill, one that would create a new level of bureaucracy in the state Office of Children and Family Services and provide funding for prevention and gang programs.
In other words, Silver's approach to dealing with homicidal teens was to create even more patronage positions to be doled out by the kingpins in Albany.
Frustrated, Balsano began circulating petitions calling on Del Monte to support Penny's Law. Niagara Falls residents, still stunned by the viciousness of the Bolender murder, signed by the hundreds. Del Monte wasn't amused.
"She called me up very angry," Balsano said. "Then she had someone in the block clubs put out a different petition to confuse people."
At last, as a result of the thousands of signatures collected by Balsano, Del Monte publicly announced she would throw her support to the legislation. But her promise proved as empty as a losing politician's campaign headquarters on election night.
"Finally, she said she would get involved in it, but she didn't really do anything. She went to Albany and rewrote it, watered it down, which wasn't what we were looking for," Balsano said.
The original version of Penny's Law provided minimum sentences of 15-to-25 years -- depending on the offender's age -- for teens convicted of first-degree murder. The version brought forward by Del Monte and Silver reduced that number to seven-and-a-half to 15 years.
Gov. George Pataki signed the watered-down version of the bill into law in July of 2003.
"Francine in no way helped us on this. She made it clear to me that she wasn't going to side with the people if it meant going against Sheldon Silver," Balsano said.
A mass mailing from Del Monte sent out in 2003 added insult to injury. Under the headline "Honoring Jennifer Bolender," Del Monte patted herself on the back for her efforts in passing Penny's Law.
"Unfortunately, some of the most brutal crimes are committed by youths under 18 years of age," the flyer read. "That's why Assemblywoman Del Monte took the lead in enacting a law that stiffens penalties for juvenile offenders convicted of murder."
Balsano said she laughed out loud on receiving the mailing.
"Francine isn't a leader, she's a follower. And now she wants to take credit for something she didn't do," Balsano said. "She's a phony. If Sheldon Silver told her to roll over and bark like a dog, she'd do it."
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||September 5 2006|