Cortland man pleads guilty to manslaughter in August stabbing

CORTLAND, N.Y. — A city man pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter in the stabbing death of Damian S. Grant on Thursday morning in Cortland County in exchange for a sentence of no worse than four to 12 years in state prison.

Andrew J. Pilcher, 32, of 6 Main St., admitted to Cortland County Judge Julie Campbell he “recklessly caused the death” of Grant by stabbing him in August on Main Street. As Campbell questioned him if he committed the elements of the crime, he replied, “Unfortunately, yes,” eliciting sobs from Grant’s family.

Pilcher faced a potential sentence of up to 25 years in prison after he was indicted on charges of first-degree manslaughter, second-degree manslaughter, and tampering with physical evidence, all felonies, as well as fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, a misdemeanor.

Pilcher’s defense attorney Luke Fenchel had requested Campbell to commit to a sentence of no worse than two to six years in state prison, but she declined Thursday. Campbell noted in court the maximum potential sentence for second-degree manslaughter is five to 15 years in prison.

Fenchel also requested the court to consider a sentence of five years in prison and two-and-a-half years of post-release supervision in exchange for a guilty to plea on all counts. “The best I could do,” replied Campbell regarding that potential deal, “is to cap the top count year at 12 years and two-and-a-half years post-release supervision.”

Pilcher decided after a brief discussion with Fenchel at the hearing to accept the four to 12 year deal in exchange for a guilty plea to second-degree manslaughter.

Campbell said at the hearing she took into consideration several factors when she committed to the plea deal, including that Pilcher has no previous criminal history, Grant likely started the confrontation the night of his death, the stress of a jury trial on all involved and the potential for closure for the family.

When Campbell mentioned closure, one woman sitting with Grant’s family wept openly and loudly, a look of utter disbelief on her face.

Campbell also noted security video footage of Main Street on August 29 showed Pilcher first backed away from Grant before the stabbing.

“The defendant initially retreated,” Campbell said. “Initially. I believe the footage goes on to show something different than that.”

Fenchel told Campbell not all of the incident was caught by the street security camera. Assistant District Attorney Christopher Simser, Sr., however, wrote in the plea agreement dated Feb. 5, “The defendant had ample opportunity to retreat to his apartment, located mere feet from the scene of the altercation, but chose not to do so.”

Pilcher’s sentencing is scheduled for 1 p.m. April 18 and Fenchel will have an opportunity to argue for a lighter sentence then, Campbell noted. Campbell said she would also review a report prepared by the Cortland County Probation Department that examines factors that may affect sentencing, including criminal history, character and circumstances surrounding the crime. The defense and prosecution may also submit written arguments to the court before sentencing.

Supporters of Pilcher and Grant that were present in the courtroom declined to comment after the hearing, as did Detective Sgt. Daniel Johnson of the city police department who was in charge of the case.

Lt. David Guerrera said the city police department was pleased with the plea agreement in an interview at the police station after the hearing.

“We’re happy that he decided to plea,” Guerrera said. “I think it’s a just sentence given the gravity of what happened, the loss of life.”

Fenchel declined to say after the hearing if he was satisfied with the plea agreement, but noted that his client’s decision spares Grant’s relatives of a potentially long and emotional trial.

“I think it would be inappropriate to say there’s satisfaction with what, I think, everyone agrees is a tragedy,” he said. “But my role is service to my client and he made what I think was a considered, responsible and clear-eyed decision to end…any further trauma to the victim’s family, to his family and to the community.”

Simser reflected after the hearing on the careful deliberation the District Attorney’s office put into the agreement.

“A great deal of thought and consideration went into the plea deal,” he said. “It would not have been possible without the assistance of Damian’s family and partner, Tami Nickerson. In addition, I’m very thankful for the fine work of Det. Sgt. Daniel Johnson and the Cortland Police Department.”

Simser also credited the work of the entire District Attorney’s office, especially Assistant District Attorney Christine Ferraro, and DA Patrick Perfetti’s leadership.