More than 35 years before Michael Leach killed his son in an Old Forge motel last summer, the former Rochester police captain fatally shot another person while on duty, attorneys said.
In that 1975 case, Leach – then a 22-year-old rookie officer – shot and killed a teenage girl who reportedly was carrying a knife while fleeing her abusive boyfriend, sparking community outcry in Rochester.
But Leach was cleared of any wrongdoing in Denise Hawkins’ death, and he was promoted up the ranks to captain until he retired from the department in 2001.
Now, as Herkimer County prosecutors seek to view Leach’s personnel records from the Rochester Police Department, that instance of deadly force could be among the items reviewed, attorneys said.
Leach, now 59, is charged with second-degree murder for shooting his son Matthew Leach, 38, inside their room at the Clark’s Beach Motel in Old Forge shortly before 1 a.m. July 21.
Leach says he mistakenly shot his son in the dark after thinking he was an intruder, but prosecutors believe Leach’s actions rise to the level of intentional murder. Leach shot his son using the duty pistol assigned to him as a part-time officer at the Perry Police Department, near Rochester.
In Herkimer County Court on Monday, District Attorney Jeffrey Carpenter asked for permission to view Leach’s personnel files to better understand what training and experience Leach had with firearms while he was with the Rochester Police Department.
“The fact he has experience with guns is as relevant as somebody who has never handled a weapon,” especially when Leach has said that his police training affected his decision-making the night he shot at what he thought was an in intruder, Carpenter told Judge John Crandall.
Those records, however, also could include disciplinary matters, and Leach’s attorney expressed concern that any of Leach’s statements in his personnel files might have been “compelled” by his superiors, instead of voluntary.
Crandall ruled that he would view Leach’s personnel files privately before deciding whether any portions can be released to the prosecutor.
After the proceeding, Leach’s attorney, Joe Damelio, said he was concerned whether Leach’s prior officer-involved shooting would be raised in this case. Still, Damelio noted that Leach was found not responsible for any wrongdoing in the 1975 death and that incident reflects the potential for violent encounters that any officer in a large-scale city comes to expect.
“Police in Rochester are faced with these situations every minute and every day,” Damelio said.
Crandall also denied the prosecutor’s request at this time to view Leach’s medical records from a local hospital where his psychiatric concerns were addressed after killing his son.
Page 2 of 2 - Although Leach’s possible post-traumatic stress disorder might have played a role in his actions “before, during and after” the shooting, Damelio said no decision has been made yet whether that issue will be raised at trial.
Leach will be back in court Thursday, June 6, for a hearing to decide whether statements Leach made to police can be used at trial, which is set to begin Aug. 5.