This fall, much attention was drawn to the trial of Amanda Knox, the American college student who won her appeal in the gruesome murder trial of her roommate in the idyllic Italian town of Perugia. It was a highly scrutinized tale of study abroad gone wrong, rife with the classic media appeal of sex, drugs and endless speculation on alibi and motive.
But another fascinating trial went to appeal this October — one that received similarly relentless media scrutiny five years ago, and was equally gruesome and murky: That of Christopher Porco, convicted of second-degree murder and attempted murder in the 2004 bludgeoning of his father and mother while the two slept in their Delmar, N.Y. home, an upscale suburb just south of Albany.
Porco was not as fortunate as Knox in his appeal. Calling the evidence against Porco “overwhelming,” New York state’s highest court upheld his conviction on Tuesday, Oct. 18.
Porco’s attorney has said that he plans to appeal the case to the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds — a plan that the attorney has admitted will likely fail. Porco, now 28, is serving 50-years-to-life for his crimes.
The differences between Knox and Porco, however, don’t stop there.
Porco just happens to be a former UR student.
The story of Porco’s trial is rife with baffling twists and turns, fit more for a twisted TV drama than something that hit so close to UR’s campus, and it has left far more questions than answers.
The saga began in the early morning hours of Monday, Nov. 15, 2004 when Peter Porco, 52, a law clerk for a state Supreme Court judge, was found severely beaten and nearly decapitated in his home — the result of an attack with a fireman’s hatchet, law enforcement officials said.
His wife, Joan, 54, an elementary school speech therapist, was found in an upstairs bedroom, also severely beaten but clinging to life. She underwent extensive surgery for facial wounds and brain injuries but survived — a “miraculous recovery” according to accounts of the trial published in the Times Union, Albany’s daily newspaper.
In one of the most bizarre twists of the entire case, it would be Porco’s mother who would staunchly maintain her son’s innocence throughout the entire trial.
But it was also Porco’s mother who tipped off law enforcement officials to her son in the first place.
When police first encountered Joan Porco “lying in her blood-drenched bed” she was asked if a family member had been the attacker, according to trial testimony by Bethlehem Police. Joan nodded and police then asked her if Christopher was the attacker. Joan nodded again. An all-points bulletin was subsequently put out for Christopher, less than two hours after his parents were discovered.
The Times Union, not the police, was the first to contact Porco about the attacks on his parents when a reporter called his dorm room that Monday afternoon, attempting to ascertain details about the family. Intending to get information from Porco’s roommate, he instead reached Porco himself, who told the reporter that he was unaware of the attack and that he had been in Rochester all of Monday.
Porco, then 21 years old, was an economics major at UR, active in ROTC and the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. He returned to Albany on Monday night and was questioned for four hours at the Bethlehem police station, but was released. Authorities seemed to immediately zero in on Porco as a suspect and subpoenaed the family’s E-ZPass records. They subsequently impounded Christopher’s 2004 yellow Jeep Wrangler — guessing that Porco had driven roughly 230 miles from Rochester to Albany late Sunday night and returned early Monday morning.
A yearlong investigation commenced that would occupy detectives statewide, as police probed more than 600 leads — an investigation that garnered such a frenzy of media attention that the actual trial was moved out of the Capital Region in an attempt to avoid biased jurors.
Porco was indicted on Friday, Nov. 5, 2005, but he was released on $250,000 cash bail in December. His attorney filed a motion with a state appeals court a week before his trial was slated to begin in June 2006, citing excessive “pretrial publicity.” In what the Times Union called an “extraordinarily” rare ruling, the appeals court moved the trial 100 miles south of Albany to a courthouse in Goshen, Orange County, where the trial began on Wednesday, June 28, 2006.
A complex portrait of Porco’s motive began to emerge. In the spring semester prior to the killings, he dropped out of UR, ostensibly for academic troubles. He returned to UR for the fall semester but, according to accounts from fraternity members published in the Times Union, he had been slipping by a number of external measurements: He quit UR’s swim team, something he had been dedicated to since high school, was forced to leave ROTC due to poor academic performance and changed his major from biomedical engineering to economics, facing the possibility of academic probation.
But more important than Porco’s academic struggles was a $32,000 loan that he applied for in order to return to UR in September 2004, which was seen by prosecutors as the instigator of tension between Porco and his parents.
Porco allegedly applied to an online loan service using his father’s name and Social Security number after leaving UR in the spring semester. Investigators said that Porco had wanted to return to UR, but it seemed that his parents were unwilling to financially support him.
In an email message a week before the crime, Joan Porco questioned the mental state of her youngest son. This email, published in the Times Union, read in part: “Dad and I are very upset about you not communicating with us. We don’t know if you are well or mentally stable. Dad is about to have a nervous breakdown. Do you understand that you are not behaving responsibly?”
Prosecutors also cited a suspicious web of actions that contributed to a widening rift between parents and son, including forged college transcripts, thefts of his parents’ electronics several years prior and a break-in at the veterinary office where Porco had worked. Porco had also taken out credit from Citibank to pay for the Jeep Wrangler.
Peter Porco, upset over his son’s duplicity and lies, also allegedly threatened legal action against Christopher shortly before the murder. Prosecutors argued that Christopher staged a burglary to cover up the murder and suggested that Porco disabled the house’s alarm with a code that only his family knew. They also said he wore protective medical clothing obtained from his work — a theory that explained the lack of physical evidence from the crime scene.
However, key testimony for the prosecution came from a neighbor, who claimed that he saw Porco’s yellow Jeep in the driveway in the early morning hours when the attacks happened.
UR Security investigators showed security camera footage of what appeared to be Porco’s Jeep leaving campus during the hours in question. A toll collector also told investigators that she had seen a yellow Jeep on Nov. 15, which she claimed to remember seeing because of its “excessive speed.”
Furthermore, Porco’s college friends testified that he had never slept in the dormitory lounge, as Porco claimed he had on the Monday night that his parents were killed.
Porco’s lawyer, in response, contended that the nod given by Joan Porco after the incident, which became a central component of the prosecution’s case, was a “red herring” because she was too badly hurt to be able to identify an attacker or to have seen the attacker in the first place.
Porco’s mother complicated the investigation when she wrote a letter for media outlets in August 2005, in which she “implored” the police to leave her son alone.
Porco himself never testified during the lengthy and fraught trial, nor did he show any discernible emotion during its entirety, which many said hurt his case.
He was convicted on Aug. 10, 2006, but not sentenced until December, when he received the sentence he is currently serving — a minimum of 50 years to life in prison.
One of the most protracted and controversial murder trials in New York state’s history seems to have reached its resolution. But due to Porco and his mother’s assertions of his innocence, what has not been fully resolved is whether a seemingly upstanding student from our own school is guilty of the unthinkable — ending the lives of the very people who gave him his own.
Buletti is a member of the class of 2013.