Defendant accused of killing SUNY Potsdam student wants to represent himself; judge will rule next week

Feb. 24—CANTON — The Massena man accused of murdering a SUNY Potsdam student a year ago wants to fire his attorneys and represent himself. The presiding judge expects to issue a ruling on the request early next week.

Michael J. Snow, 32, is charged with second-degree murder in the Feb. 18, 2022, shooting death of 21-year-old SUNY Potsdam student Elizabeth M. Howell. He's represented by James M. McGahan, St. Lawrence County chief public defender, and Assistant Public Defender Thomas C. Finnerty Jr.

Snow made the request to Judge Craig P. Carriero on Friday in a conference that took place in the judge's chamber, along with his attorneys and St. Lawrence County District Attorney Gary M. Pasqua. Assistant District Attorneys Sasha Mascarenhas and Alexander Nichols were also present.

The new development in the case is detailed in a transcript of the Friday proceeding.

"I'm going to put it frankly, representing yourself is a terrible idea. But you have that right if you want that right. So, do you understand you're facing life in prison if convicted?" the judge says in the transcript, to which Snow answers, "I do."

Snow went on to tell the court that he wants to represent himself because he's not satisfied with his legal counsel and doesn't think a new lawyer would do any better.

One of the issues, Snow said, is the Public Defender's Office hiring a former Massena police dispatcher, Marissa Brock, who would likely be called at trial to testify about a 911 tape the prosecution intends to enter as evidence at trial.

"We made that disclosure to Mr. Snow shortly after hiring. At the time, he seemed to be OK with that. I think his position might have changed since that time," Mr. McGahan says in the transcript.

Snow also complains to the judge that he doesn't think Mr. McGahan is showing him discovery material in a timely manner.

"I've been asking for discovery for close to a year now and I have not gotten it. I do get segments at a time. Each time I get a segment, I find more that counsel has overlooked," Snow said. "I won't call it competence, but I have had to point out the significance of several facts favorable to defense ... (U)sually new facts arise every time I get a new segment of discovery to review myself."

"The only thing he doesn't have at this stage is the videos. We are in the process of getting another hard drive to give it to Mr. Snow," Mr. McGahan said.

After Snow aired his grievances, Judge Carriero asked him a series of questions and issued several warnings before he moved forward with considering letting the defendant represent himself. The judge warned Snow he's at a disadvantage because he's not trained in courtroom procedure — how to make opening and closing statements, how to examine and cross-examine witnesses, how to introduce evidence or make objections.

"Among lawyers, it is said that a lawyer who is a defendant and represents himself has a fool for a client," Judge Carriero said. "In other words, even a lawyer who is a defendant normally hires a lawyer to represent himself. The lawyer does that, because the lawyer fears that he or she is too emotionally connected to the case to have a calm, reasoned, objective approach and that he or she fears saying or doing something at trial in front of the jury that may appear to make him or her look guilty. Do you understand that?"

"Yes, your honor," Snow replied.

After hearing all of the judge's warnings, Snow asked a legal question that the judge isn't legally able to answer.

"When referring to myself at a trial, would I refer to myself in the first — say "I" or would I refer to myself as the defendant?" Snow asked.

"I can't give you legal advice on that, OK?" the judge replied. "Do you wish to represent yourself or are you looking for new counsel?"

"I wish to represent myself," Snow said.

Toward the end of the proceeding, Mr. Pasqua referred to the issue of Ms. Brock, now working for the Public Defender's Office, possibly being called as a prosecution witness.

"I don't know that it's an issue if Mr. Snow ends up representing himself," he said. "(E)ven if the Public Defender's Office is standby counsel, we are going to research that issue just to make sure that there is no potential conflict there or it is one that Mr. Snow could waive to, so that the public defender could continue as standby counsel. We certainly don't want any sort of an appellate issue because of that."

Mr. Pasqua also pointed out that when Snow was arraigned in April, Mr. McGahan filed a motion to introduce a defense by reason of mental disease or defect. Snow earlier in the conference had been asked by the judge if he's ever had treatment for mental health issues. He said he was treated for major depressive disorder in 2018. Despite that, Snow told the court he wants to throw out that motion, and the judge granted the request.

Judge Carriero ended the conference by telling Snow he can change his mind and request to keep his attorneys, or seek new counsel, prior to his ruling, likely early next week.

Snow's request to defend himself is the second major shakeup in the case over the last month. Judge Gregory P. Storie, who was initially presiding over the case, recused himself in January.

Mr. Storie's recusal form, filed with the St. Lawrence County Clerk's Office on Jan. 18, says, "I wish to avoid any potential appearance of impropriety that my impartiality might be questioned as it may appear that: counsel has questioned by impartiality in this matter."

Earlier in February, Mr. Pasqua said both he and Mr. McGahan had questioned Judge Storie's impartiality. He declined to comment further.

"I can tell you it was both counsel, both the people (prosecution) and the defense, both raised a concern," Mr. Pasqua said. "At this time, outside of that, given the case is still pending and continuing, I don't have any further comment."

Judge Storie was elected in 2020 following the retirement of Judge Jerome J. Richards, who spent 15 years on the county bench.

A grand jury in April handed up an indictment charging Snow with four felonies: second-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter, first-degree assault and first-degree criminal use of a firearm. He has denied the charges. If convicted of murder, Snow faces up to a life sentence in state prison.

Last year, investigators searched rivers for the gun Snow allegedly used to kill Ms. Howell, along the route Snow is believed to have taken after the shooting near the SUNY Potsdam campus. He went east on Route 11B to Malone, north on Route 37 to Akwesasne and west on Route 37 to Massena.

State police divers the week of Aug. 22 searched the Raquette and St. Regis rivers below bridges that cross those waters along Route 37 in Akwesasne. In May, state police divers searched the west branch of the St. Regis River below a bridge along Route 11B.

Snow was arrested Feb. 19, 2022, the day after Ms. Howell's murder, in a police raid of his 250 Main St. apartment in Massena. Among the debris after the raid were two boxes of more than 100 spent miniature nitrous oxide canisters, which when huffed can cause audio hallucinations. There was also an unopened package of the canisters.

During Snow's arraignment in April last year, Mr. Pasqua told Judge Storie that investigators recovered a sawed-off shotgun while executing a search warrant at Snow's apartment. That weapon is not believed to be tied to the murder.

Although Snow was arrested at the Main Street apartment, during his arraignment he told Judge Storie that he lives at 50 Park Ave. in Massena. He inherited the 50 Park Ave. house from his mother, Paula N. Snow, after she died there on April 1, 2019, allegedly by suicide.

A friend of Snow's, 30-year-old Raymond G. Lancto III, also died in the 50 Park Ave. house, allegedly from a drug overdose on Oct. 8, 2020.

Witnesses at the scene of Ms. Howell's murder near the Crane School of Music told police they heard three shots fired from a gray four-door sedan, and they directed responding officers to the victim, who had fled a short distance on foot.

Ms. Howell was found unconscious at 5:51 p.m. that day, and responding officers initiated lifesaving measures. She was then taken to Canton-Potsdam Hospital, where she died just before 7 p.m., officials said.

Mr. Pasqua has said that Snow had no connection to Ms. Howell prior to the shooting.

Ms. Howell was studying music education at the Crane School of Music.

Her parents, Joe and Ann Howell, spoke about their daughter's murder with The New York Post in February at the family's home in Patterson, Putnam County, about 60 miles north of New York City. They said she was likely "a random victim in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The couple described Elizabeth, called Beth by family and friends, as "a talented musician, a dear friend, an all-around great person." She was a cellist who performed with the Crane Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Howell said his daughter was "always willing to help you out."