50 years for killing mother, son

Family pushes for longer sentences for repeat misdemeanor offenders

Section: Capital Region,  Page: B6

Date: Friday, January 26, 2007

SCHENECTADY - A career criminal who admitted he killed a young woman who befriended him - then killed her infant son - was sentenced to 50 years to life in state prison Thursday after his victims' grieving family lamented their loss and made a passionate plea for stiffer sentences for repeat misdemeanor offenders.

"My daughter Hillary was a trusting person and Romello was an innocent child. They didn't deserve to die such horrible deaths in their own home," the 26-year-old woman's father, Stephen Downey, told the judge who sentenced killer Kareem Hayes. Hayes pleaded guilty to second-degree murder last year for killing Downey and her 13-month-old son inside the woman's 902 Congress St. apartment on Jan. 14, 2006. Hayes choked Downey and then stabbed her 33 times because, prosecutors suspect, he feared Downey would turn him in for burglarizing her apartment.

After he killed Downey, Hayes left the apartment to trade her belongings for crack cocaine. Prosecutors believe Hayes returned to the apartment and killed the baby, choking and stabbing him, because he feared the infant's crying would draw attention. Hayes stayed in the apartment until Jan. 16, when her father and brother went there looking for Downey and spotted Hayes through a window.

Long before he became a killer, Hayes was racking up a criminal record. He was convicted of embezzlement in North Carolina and served four years in New York state prison for an attempted robbery. But since his 2003 release, Hayes has served no more than 90 days in jail

for a string of misdemeanors.

Stephen Downey said he wants New York to enact a persistent misdemeanor offender statute. After five arrests in five or 10 years, it would convert a defendant's latest misdemeanor charge into a low-level felony punishable with prison time. The Republican-controlled state Senate has twice passed such a measure, but it has died in the Democrat-run Assembly.

Downey said he would channel his emotions into pushing the state to enact the enhanced penalty. His effort has the backing of Schenectady County prosecutors. Schenectady County Deputy Chief District Attorney Philip Mueller spoke in favor of it at Hayes' sentencing.

"In the course of my 17 years in this job, this is probably the worst tragedy, the worst crimes, and worst abomination I have ever seen committed," Mueller said. "If Hillary was guilty of anything, it was showing compassion and concern to a person without using suffi cient judgment about what dangers that placed her in."

Downey befriended Hayes at the City Mission and allowed him to live with her even after she suspected him of stealing from her. She was waiting to give him a hug when he came through the door at about 2 a.m. Jan. 14.

A plea bargain allows him to avoid first-degree murder charges and a possible sentence of life without parole if he had been convicted by a jury. Instead, the 33-year-old man will serve a 50-year prison sentence.

"How anyone can stab a baby repeatedly in the chest and leave him dying and bleeding ... is beyond me," Judge Polly Hoye told Hayes.

Hayes, who declined to speak at his sentencing, avoided eye contact with Downey's relatives when they rose to give victim impact statements. Throughout the proceeding, Hayes sat with his hands folded in front of him, looking away from the victims' family.

Stephen Downey is raising Hillary's daughter, Alyssa, 5. The little girl, he said, remains confused about her mother's death. He spoke of the difficulty of addressing the questions of a youngster curious about a parent's death.

"Why did she die? How did she die? Can she see me?" Alyssa asks, he said.

In court, Downey's brother, Zachary Downey, said he missed an older sister he grew up admiring. He said he hoped Hayes would have a difficult time in prison.

"Thugs and gangsters survive in prison. Baby killers don't," he said.

Mike Goodwin can be reached at 454-5465 or by e-mail at mgoodwin@timesunion.com.