Looking Back 20 Years to the Murder of David S. Eccleston
On the morning of Oct. 20, 1992, April M. Dell’Olio killed David S. Eccleston, and then went to school.
It was the case that rocked small town New Berlin: A breakup, a murder, a failure of the legal system, and a freed 15-year-old girl. The story gained national traction and brought hundreds to the Chenango County Courthouse in Norwich. It shed new light on adolescent life.
Twenty years ago, 17-year-old Eccleston, a popular New Berlin teenager, was stabbed 21 times and killed near his home.
The police investigation revealed truths the small town community either didn’t know or neglected. Teens had casual sex, smoked pot, drank and partied. Eccleston and Dell’Olio even exchanged explicit love letters. That is, until Eccleston wanted out.
Dell’Olio was arrested soon after and brought to trial on the charge of second-degree murder. She never denied the murder and faced life in prison if convicted.
Her attorneys, Joseph McBride and Stephen Dunshey, laid out to the jury a picture of Eccleston as controlling, mean, even abusive. They claimed Dell’Olio was mentally unstable at the time and was suffering from, legally, “brief reactive psychosis” – temporary insanity.
She underwent psychoanalysis and was deemed “sane” at the time of the trial, a presumed point for the prosecution. But the psychologist was picked apart during cross examinations.
In the end, the jury, to nearly everyone’s surprise and anger, sided with Dell’Olio. She walked free. Her only sentence was five years of therapy and a check-in every five years thereafter.
The New York Times quoted Judge Kevin M. Dowd’s reaction to the verdict and his own sentencing:
"Never in my entire legal career have I had a case which had more disturbing overtones than this one," Judge Dowd said during the 70-minute hearing. "A young man is dead, and basically I am hamstrung on the situation where I have to treat it like the psychological equivalent of, 'April had a bad hair day on Oct. 20, 1992.' "
Ten years later, even Dell’Olio’s own lawyers expressed regret for representing Dell’Olio, according to interviews published by The Daily Star in 2002.
“I’m from over there. I grew up in South Edmeston, went to New Berlin Central School,” (Dunshey) said. “I go over the hill a couple of times a month and I know people are still angry.”
Fifteen years became 20 and, today, Eccleston has been dead longer than he was alive. Dell'Olio currently lives near New York City.
Days before his death, Eccleston sketched a hawk clutching a banner that read “Coming Together.” It became a theme for the community trying to move on. A replica of it is etched on his grave marker at Fairview Cemetery.
At the time of his death, Eccleston had plans to attend Alfred State on a full scholarship. His classmates, now approaching 40 years old, are either sending or preparing their own children for college.
Most of the names and faces associated with the murder and trial have moved away or retired. Time, as it does, continues to tick away, and soon it will be 25 years, then 30. Eccleston’s time may have stopped at 17 years, but his story endures.
(Read a moving letter written by one of Eccleston's teachers to Norwich's The Evening Sun.)