Three Cases Await Grand Jury Action

Three assault cases are now currently progressing through the court system, capturing the attention of residents across Chautauqua County and beyond in their wake.

It was announced Thursday that Jonathan Conklin, 43, and Charles Sanford, 30, two men who allegedly signed confessions in the homicide of 61-year-old Mary Whitaker, are being held without bail.

“We can present that case to a grand jury any time,” said David Foley, Chautauqua County district attorney. “They were charged federally and federal charges are completely separate from state charges.”

The federal charges involve what occurred across state lines, Foley said.

Conklin and Sanford were charged in a federal criminal complaint with carjacking, use of a firearm and transportation of a stolen vehicle, according to William J. Hochul Jr., U.S. attorney for the western district of New York. If convicted on the federal charges, they face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years imprisonment, a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.

Whitaker’s body was found on Aug. 20, while Conklin and Sanford were arrested on Aug. 22 in Erie, Pennsylvania, where her vehicle was recovered and it was discovered her credit cards had been used.

“Typically, when someone is charged with a crime, we have six months to present it to a grand jury,” Foley said.

However, he added, when suspects are not charged locally in a murder case, there is no time limit.

Seeing as how Conklin and Sanford are being held without bail, the case could be presented in front of a grand jury at any time.

“I wouldn’t say that this happens often,” Foley said of the federal and possible state charges. “I don’t have a large number of cases that involve even the possibility of federal charges to be linked to them. It’s not standard, but this is a case where certainly I can say it’s my intention to proceed with state prosecutions.”

Both suspects have criminal records, and both have confessed to the crime while also pleading not guilty in federal court.

A pretrial is scheduled for Sept. 9.

Two other local cases of assault have yet to be presented to a grand jury for various reasons.

The murder of Whitaker is the second homicide case of 2014 after the death of 16-month-old Nayla J. Hodnett, who was beaten to death at a Newland Avenue residence on April 17.

“We are still investigating the Hodnett case, but we have nothing to release at this time,” said Harry Snellings, chief of the Jamestown Police Department.

It is unclear whether the case has been brought before a grand jury.

“The only thing I can say is that no charges have been filed in the Hodnett case,” Foley said. “Grand jury proceedings are secret. I can indicate my intent to present a case to a grand jury, but I cannot divulge whether or not it has happened.”

On July 12, 20-year-old Steven Spencer was charged after allegedly assaulting his 6-month-old son. Spencer reportedly brought the child to WCA Hospital, where he was later transferred to Women and Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. The child remains in stable condition. It is alleged that Spencer shook his son and struck him with an object. He was later charged with assault and has been in Chautauqua County Jail since his arrest on July 12.

“The investigation is ongoing, and we’re not ready to pursue further charges,” said Captain Robert Samuelson with the Jamestown Police Department. “In terms of the Hodnett case, we’re waiting on lab reports and we will move forward with the case as well.”

Grand juries consist of a panel of 23 jurors who review felony cases to see if they have reason to believe a felony has been committed.

If so, an indictment is handed to the person who committed the crime and they appear in Chautauqua County Court.

“The role of the district attorney with a grand jury is that of a legal adviser,” Foley said. “With a grand jury, we instruct them on the law and try to make sure they understand penal law sections.”

The system concludes when the person who has been charged goes to trial and sits in front of a petit jury, which determines guilt or innocence.