Killer seeks prison release

Bocchicchio was convicted of killing owner of bowling alley when he was 17

HOLLIDAYSBURG — An Altoona man incarcerated 35 years for a murder that he committed in 1980 when he was 17 years old is asking a Blair County judge for a new sentence allowing his release.

Leonard W. Bocchicchio, now 55, was convicted of killing 75-year-old Elwood M. Figard, the owner of Penn Classic Bowling Lanes, 1879 E. Pleasant Valley Blvd., by striking Figard with a bowling ball when stealing cash from the business.

In court Wednesday, Bocchicchio said he was sorry for taking Figard’s life and for the grief that caused his family, friends and the community. At 17, Bocchicchio said he had no understanding of the consequences of his “selfish” act.

He has changed, he said, crying at times as he addressed President Judge Elizabeth Doyle.

“I accept complete and full responsibility for everything that happened that night,” he said.

Bocchicchio became eligible for resentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2012, found life without parole sentences for crimes committed by juveniles could qualify as a cruel and unusual punishment. The court ruled in 2016 that the decision could be applied retroactively.

Those rulings were “a gift” for all juvenile offenders serving life sentences, said Bocchicchio, an inmate at the State Correctional Institute at Houtzdale.

In Pennsylvania, he is one of about 500 juvenile lifers who have sought new sentences.

He is one of two state inmates asking Blair County for a new sentence. The other is James “Frankie” Rodgers of Altoona, who was convicted in the 1988 stabbing death of 72-year-old Pasquale Lascoli. Like Bocchicchio, Rodgers was 17 at the time of the killing.

Doyle’s decision on a new sentence for Bocchicchio could come as early as today, after attorneys present oral arguments on the options.

In court Wednesday, defense attorney Paul Puskar offered several witnesses in support of Bocchicchio’s quest for release. They included Dr. Joseph Silverman, an Altoona psychiatrist who acknowledged his support for rehabilitation instead of punishment.

In Norway, Silverman said, no one gets more than a 21-year sentence for their crimes.

That country has one of the lowest recidivism rates. Puskar asked Silverman for his opinion on the possibility of the commonwealth asking for a 45-year sentence.

“I see that as cruel, rather than constructive,” Silver­man said.

Deputy Attorney General Philip McCarthy asked Silverman, who completed an assessment of Bocchicchio and spoke with him, about the specifics of who did what on the night of Figard’s death. McCarthy pointed to a portion of the court record indicating that Bocchicchio at one time denied striking the fatal blow to Figard.

Puskar objected to McCarthy’s questions.

“We’re not here to judge a 17-year-old,” Puskar said. “The 17-year-old was already tried and convicted.”

But Doyle permitted McCarthy to later ask Bocchicchio about what he was taking responsibility for.

“Did you personally murder Elwood Figard?” McCarthy asked.

“Yes,” Bocchicchio replied.

When Puskar asked Bocchicchio to explain why he should be released, Bocchicchio said he has become a different person while in prison. He said he has learned to make friends, stays away from gangs, mentors new inmates and stays out of trouble.

“I think I’ve proven that I’m not the guy I was at 17,” Bocchicchio said.

A former cellmate, Thomas G. Brewer, who lives in the Wilkes-Barre area and has been out of prison for eight years, said he met Bocchicchio in 1999 and described him as “a voice of reason” within the prison system.

Brewer said he was in his 20s when he entered the State Correctional Institution at Cresson with 13 felonies on his record. It was Bocchicchio, Brewer said, who mentored him, counseled him and helped prepare him for release in 2010. Brewer said he hasn’t been in trouble since.

“He’s a good person,” Brewer said of Bocchicchio. “I made a lot mistakes. He made one.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.