April 6, 2013
15-year sentence in Groton killing
ITHACA — Defense attorney Joseph Joch said Dana Houghtling had never been a fighter. He said even when his client was a bouncer at a bar, he never took the bait and let things descend into unnecessary violence.
Houghtling, 41, of 734 W. Groton Road, Groton, was a talented body-shop worker who single-handedly built up his own homestead. The “milk of human kindness flowed through his veins,” said Joch.
But a violent altercation with Jeff West, 31, of 125 Old Peruville Road, Groton, in Houghtling’s driveway over Houghtling’s estranged wife led to a murderous rampage, and to West’s tragic death, said Joch.
“There’s a seed of violence in all of us,” he said.
Houghtling was sentenced Friday by Tompkins County Court Judge John C. Rowley to 15 years in prison, with a five-year term of post-release supervision.
He pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in January.
He was first charged with second-degree murder, but Joch and Assistant District Attorney Andrew Bonavia negotiated a plea to manslaughter due to the extreme emotional disturbance that resulted in the killing.
The first of two violent encounters occurred around 9 p.m. on April 15 last year, around when he was putting his 8-year-old daughter, Delilah, to bed. After sending a text message to his estranged wife, Amber, saying that he wanted her back, his wife came to the house with West, her boyfriend, leading to a dispute outside the residence.
Joch said West told the man he had been with his wife for six months, leading to a fistfight between the two men that lasted more than five minutes, according to witnesses.
Houghtling had not done well, suffering injuries to his head and body. West and his wife then left with his daughter. “Come on, you have the kid. Let’s go,” West said, according to Joch.
This sequence triggered Houghtling’s “descent into hell,” said the attorney.
“Why do you have to take Delilah?” Joch said his client shouted.
What happened next was, as Bonavia called it, “a scene out of a horror movie.”
West and Amber Houghtling left and went to a friend’s house at 757 Van Ostrand Road in Lansing. Dana Houghtling followed. Dana Houghtling slammed his vehicle into West’s, sending it spinning into the house.
“It was an attack as cowardly as it was violent,” Bonavia said.
Judge Rowley said, examining the aftermath of the collision, that it was “symbolic of the ferocity of the attack.”
Houghtling chased West around the house, bearing two large knives he had brought from his home. He stabbed West numerous times before the man escaped into a locked car with Amber. But Dana Houghtling went to the passenger’s side where West was sitting and broke the window with the butt of a knife, and continued his assault on the already grievously injured man.
Houghtling left in his damaged car and West was brought to University Hospital in Syracuse, where he died of his injuries.
Sherry West, the victim’s mother, spoke in court of how she watched her son die.
She said West’s upper arm had been stabbed with such force that his muscles had been severed.
“He was bleeding from every area; he was so pale,” she said. “I watched as they brought bags of blood in, and lost count at 20.”
Sherry West described a “gagging” odor of blood filling the hospital room. She said eventually the doctors told her all brain activity had ceased.
She placed equal blame for the killing on Amber Houghtling, who she said moved in with another boyfriend just several weeks after Jeff West’s death.
“She lowered the gun, and you pulled the trigger,” West said.
Jeff West had two sons, Caleb, 12, and Mason, 14, and an 11-year-old daughter, Madison.
“She’ll never have her daddy walk her down the aisle,” said the victim’s mother, who said her granddaughter was so distraught after hearing about the slaying that she asked if Houghtling would come and kill her too.
“My hope for you is that when you close your eyes at night, my son’s face is all you see,” said West.
“I never thought in a million years that I would commit violence to another person,” Dana Houghtling said when Rowley offered him a chance to speak, during which he apologized to West’s family. “I want my daughter to know I will always love her and will try to be there for her.”
Houghtling has not seen his daughter, now 9, since the attack, said his attorney. An order of protection against Houghtling would prevent him from contacting his ex-wife or daughter, but a decision was not made on that Friday. Houghtling did, however, waive his right to appeal.
Joch submitted several defenses for the act, including that Houghtling did not know whether his wife was leaving with his daughter for good, and that he had essentially “blacked out” with rage.
Rowley called this speculative.
“It could be said that’s convenient. I’m not going to look anywhere but at you for responsibility,” he told Houghtling, who sat passively through the sentencing.
The judge called the broad spectrum of potential sentences, which could have landed Houghtling anywhere between five and 25 years in prison, a “burdensome guideline.”
“In some sense there is an absurdity to this,” Rowley said. “What is the appropriate number? There is no such thing.”
Joch argued for the five-year minimum sentence, and Bonavia for a 20-year sentence.
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