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Renay Lynch

Other Erie County, New York exonerations
At about noon on May 19, 1995, the body of 82-year-old Louise Cicelsky was found in her home in the Eggertsville neighborhood of Amherst, New York. She had been stabbed eight times in the neck, had bruises on her left eye and jaw, and one of her front teeth had been knocked out.

Police were called after a relative came to check on Cicelsky because she had not answered phone calls and failed to come to a bar mitzvah in Albany.

Officers found three purses and her wig next to her body. In a spare bedroom, a white dresser had a bloody smear on one of the drawers and blood was found on a white purse. There were blood stains inside the purse flap and the purse. Elsewhere, police recovered nearly $1,700 in cash as well as credit cards.

Cicelsky was well-known as a feisty widow—she was less than 5 feet tall—who owned and managed several rental properties. She and her husband, Jerry, were Lithuanian immigrants. After Jerry had suffered a stroke at age 29, she began expanding her rental properties, buying buildings in Amherst and Buffalo’s University District. Jerry had died in 1990. She went to temple nearly daily at Temple Shaarey Zedek and also exercised at a local health spa. She was known to collect rents in cash.

Nearly 50 items of evidence were collected and sent to the Erie County Department of Central Police Services Forensic Laboratory. Thirteen items were submitted for DNA testing, although none of the blood spatter or the fingernail scrapings were tested.

The time of death was difficult to pinpoint. According to the autopsy report, Cicelsky had been dead for at least 12 hours prior to her discovery. Her stomach contained partially digested food, suggesting she had eaten less than three hours before she was killed.

The last evidence of her being alive was Wednesday, May 17, two days before her body was found. She answered a telephone call at 8:22 p.m. that night.

Calls on Thursday, May 18, went unanswered. A plumber arrived shortly after 10 a.m. to collect a payment. Both of Cicelsky’s cars were in the driveway, but she did not come to the door. At about 4 p.m., a contractor arrived for a previously scheduled appointment. When Cicelsky did not answer his knocks, he slid his estimate under the door.

At 4:30 p.m., her newspaper was delivered. It was still outside when her body was found.

During the ensuing police investigation, officers learned that Cicelsky had problems with multiple tenants about late payments and building maintenance. Among those investigated was a person who Cicelsky had sold a property to and she had started proceedings against him when he failed to make payment. They also investigated a nephew who owed her $15,000 for a loan she had given him. Cicelsky and the nephew had been engaged in extensive”litigation over the money he owed her.

The police also investigated all of Cicelsky's tenants because she was known to collect rent in cash and keep cash in her home. Among these tenants was a man who had been convicted of crimes of violence, including manslaughter, in the past and gave inconsistent statements about when he had last seen Cicelsky, including that he talked to her on May 18 between 4 and 6 p.m.—which contradicted evidence that no one had contact with Cicelsky that day. Other tenants said this man and Cicelsky had clashed numerous times in the past over late rent payments.

On the day Cicelsky’s body was found, 39-year-old Renay Lynch, who was one of Cicelsky’s tenants, called Cicelsky’s home to find out what was going on. When a police officer answered the phone, Lynch falsely identified herself as Cicelsky’s niece and gave her correct address. Police later said they didn’t believe the caller was Cicelsky’s niece because she sounded “Black.” When police came to that address, Lynch told them that her sister had ridden by Cicelsky’s home in a taxi and saw police there, so she was concerned. Police confirmed that account with her sister and with the cab company.

At the time, Lynch was struggling with drug addiction which drove her to engaging in sex work and stealing. Although she had never been convicted of any violent crimes, she had a history of more than 20 arrests under various aliases. She had been renting from Cicelsky since December 1994 and Lynch thought they were “close.” They had shared a meal on one occasion. Lynch said she had last seen Cicelsky on April 25 when she paid her rent. Detective Joseph LaCorte told Lynch she was not a suspect, but that he felt as if someone in her circle of friends was involved.

At one point, Lynch mentioned that a man named Kareem Walker had driven her to Cicelsky's home in April so Lynch could make her rent payment. Walker was an acquaintance of Lynch with whom she had once been romantically involved. Detectives LaCorte and Raymond Klimczak then focused on Walker.

On May 24, 1995, they picked up Lynch and drove her around until she pointed out Walker’s white Cadillac. She told police he was a “violent crackhead” who she thought was capable of murder. She said that he had previously driven Lynch when she visited Cicelsky to pay rent.

At one point, Lynch agreed to the detectives’ request to wear a secret recording device to engage in conversation with people who knew Walker, but no incriminating evidence was developed.

On October 15, 1996, nearly 18 months after the murder, LaCorte and Klimczak went to Buffalo City Court where Lynch was appearing on robbery and grand larceny charges unrelated the Cicelsky murder. Her case was continued, and the detectives later met with a prosecutor in the Erie County District Attorney’s office to try to work out a deal for Lynch in exchange for her cooperation in the murder case.

According to LaCorte, when he and Klimczak went back to court on October 22, 1996, for Lynch’s sentencing, she approached him unprompted prior to sentencing and said she had learned information about the murder. Lynch later testified that the detectives had approached her and told her it would be “smart” of her to start giving information. The detectives said she told them that a woman who was dating Walker’s cousin heard that Walker was the killer. She promised more information if she didn’t have to go to jail.

On October 25, 1996, Lynch met with the detectives and a prosecutor. She now said that she had heard that Walker committed the crime with his cousin. She said that Walker drove her to pay her rent on May 10, 1995, and that about four or five days later, she and Walker got into an argument when Lynch refused to give Walker any money.

On October 29, 1996, Lynch was released on an appeal bond secured by her signature. The detectives took her to the police station where she was fitted with a wire. Lynch then went to several locations to try to gather information on Walker. The following day, the officers took Lynch to several more locations. At one point, after the detectives learned that Walker had gone to Florida, they had Lynch telephone him and falsely claim to have contracted AIDS in an attempt to get him to come back to Buffalo. Walker did not come back.

On November 6, 1996, the police brought Lynch to the police station. At that time, she signed a statement in which she said Walker had admitted to her that he killed Cicelsky.

On November 25, 1996, LaCorte and Klimczak arrested Lynch for theft of a fur coat from a store in Williamsville, New York. LaCorte would later testify that he was enraged with Lynch because he had helped her get out of jail. The coat theft reflected poorly on his judgment.

LaCorte admitted later that he was being “nasty” to Lynch and kept yelling at her to “shut up.” Lynch offered to help get the coat back. A sting operation was set up, and the coat was recovered by 6 p.m. Around 7:30 p.m., LaCorte said he was going to charge Lynch with the theft of the coat anyway.

LaCorte would later testify that Lynch spontaneously decided to tell “the truth.” Now, according to the detectives, Lynch said she was present when Cicelsky was killed.

According to LaCorte, Lynch said that the day before the crime, Walker suggested that she rob Cicelsky instead of paying her rent. The plan was for Lynch to go there under the pretense of paying rent and Walker would come in through the back door and rob Cicelsky. Instead, Lynch now said, Walker attacked Cicelsky, hitting her twice, causing her to fall to the floor and her wig to fall off.

While Cicelsky was on the floor, Walker went into her bedroom and returned with money in his hand. LaCorte said Lynch described binding Cicelsky with duct tape—although this was not in the written statement. LaCorte said Lynch said that Walker stabbed Cicelsky in the back of the neck with a black handled dagger that was about five or six inches long.

Lynch remained in custody on the unrelated charges and was indicted on charges of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery on June 13, 1997.

In February 1998, Lynch went to trial in Erie County Supreme Court. There was no physical or forensic evidence connecting her to the crime. Amherst police Captain Michael Melton testified that only two latent palm prints found in the hallway of the multi-family building were suitable for comparison and that the sources of those palm prints were of a plumber and another tenant of Cicelsky According to Melton, none of the other prints lifted from the scene were deemed suitable for comparison.

The confession was the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case. Although Walker was never arrested or charged, the prosecution contended that Lynch had helped Walker commit the crime.

LaCorte testified about the spontaneous confession by Lynch and detailed how she described the robbery and killing.

A jailhouse informant testified that while she was in jail with Lynch, Lynch had admitted taking part in the crime. That same week, the informant had also testified for the prosecution in an unrelated murder trial that the accused in that case also had confessed to her.

Lynch testified and denied that she was involved in the crime. She said the confession was false, that it was the result of coercion by the detectives, and that it was based on information the detectives fed her during questioning.

She said that LaCorte had threatened her with seven years of jail time for the fur coat theft, but said that she would not be arrested if she helped get it back. And when she did, LaCorte refused to keep his promise. Instead, he told her that they knew Walker committed this crime, but that her November 6 statement—in which she placed Walker but not herself at the scene of the crime—would not be enough to arrest him. Lynch asserted that the detectives told her that they “needed [her] to be there at the murder.”

She testified that LaCorte then proceeded to feed her information; show her photographs of the crime scene; threaten her with perjury and another ten-to-fourteen-year sentence; bang on the table; and ask leading questions, such as “[d]id he have some type of rope or some type of cord?” and “what was inside of the wig?”

Lynch testified that, although she knew nothing about the murder, she felt pressured to make up a story because she feared going back to jail for the coat theft, and she believed that giving the detectives what they wanted would keep her out. Lynch testified that at the time of the interrogation she was heavily addicted to crack and her only concern was getting her next fix.

She said that what the detectives didn’t feed her, she knew from following the news accounts of the crime.

Her statement was at odds with the facts. She said the motive was robbery, but $1,700 in cash had been recovered from Cicelsky’s kitchen. She said the crime occurred between 6 and 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 18, 1995, though there was no evidence that Cicelsky had been active since the night before. There was no evidence that duct tape had been used or that the weapon was a dagger. The medical examiner said the wounds could have been caused by “any sharp pointed” weapon.

On February 18, 1998, the jury convicted Lynch of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery. She was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Her convictions and sentence were upheld on appeal.

By 2017, the Innocence Project and the law firm of Byrialsen & Fisher were representing Lynch. As part of that reinvestigation, Matt Marvin, a certified latent print examiner from Ron Smith & Associates, reviewed 14 digital images of fingerprints that had been obtained by post-conviction counsel through a public records request. Marvin concluded there were seven prints suitable for comparison.

In May 2018, Erie County Supreme Court Justice M. William Boller, over the objections of Erie County District Attorney John Flynn Jr., granted a request for DNA testing that had been filed by Innocence Project attorney Susan Friedman and attorney Jane Fisher-Byrialsen. The order required testing of numerous items of evidence, including fingernail clippings and scrapings from Cicelsky, blood swabs from the kitchen floor, a living room carpet, a microwave table, a refrigerator, a dining room wall, a bedroom dresser drawer, and a purse. A photograph of a bloody smear on the dresser was sent to be checked against state and federal fingerprint databases, but no fingerprint could be established.

Ultimately, the testing found nothing to link Lynch to the crime. All of the female DNA belonged to Cicelsky. There were DNA profiles from two unknown male individuals found on a glove box.

In 2020, Marvin reviewed evidence at the police department and determined that there were 14 prints suitable for comparison. Four of these prints were found in Cicelsky’s home and one was found in a location “highly” indicative that it had been left by the killer. This was a print found on the door jamb leading to the hallway to the guest bedroom where the bloodstains were found on the purse and dresser.

As part of the re-investigation that was also being conducted by the Erie County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), the Amherst police revealed records showing that at the time of the crime, five prints had been compared to possible suspects. This contradicted Captain Melton’s trial testimony that only two prints were suitable for comparison.

On January 27, 2022, Lynch was released from prison on parole.

In November 2023, Friedman and Fisher-Byrialsen filed a motion to vacate Lynch’s convictions. The motion noted that the tenant of Cicelsky who had a prior conviction for manslaughter was the source of nine of the fingerprints. The motion noted that prior to Lynch’s trial, Amherst police had compared the prints of Walker and Lynch to the crime-scene prints, and both had been excluded. That information had not been disclosed to the defense, the motion said.

The motion noted that Lynch had submitted to polygraph examinations on three occasions during the investigation. The first, not long after she began cooperating with the detectives, showed no deception when she denied being involved in or knowing information about the murder. The second examination resulted in no findings because the machine was not working properly. In the third examination, in November 1996, Lynch’s responses were not available, but she was deemed to have showed no deception. One of the questions was whether she was involved in the murder.

By that time, the jailhouse informant, who had recanted her testimony to Lynch in 2005 and to post-conviction counsel in 2017, had died. In her initial recantation, the informant said she used information she obtained from media accounts to come up with her false testimony. She said she was young, addicted to drugs, and saw an opportunity to get out of jail.

On December 11, 2023, Justice Boller, noting that District Attorney Flynn did not object, granted the motion for a new trial.

“Specifically, as outlined in both the defendant's motion as well as the People's response, information concerning multiple fingerprints at the scene of the crime was not disclosed,” the judge said in his order.

On January 3, 2024, Justice Boller granted the prosecution’s motion to dismiss the case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/16/2024
Last Updated: 1/16/2024
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1995
Sentence:25 to life
Age at the date of reported crime:39
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes