Twenty years ago, on Sept. 9, 2003, Lazale Ashby was arrested and charged with rape and murder in the death of Elizabeth Garcia, a young mother who was killed in her Hartford apartment the winter before.
Ashby, who was 18 at the time of Garcia’s death, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008. When the death penalty was abolished in Connecticut seven years later, he was resentenced to life in prison plus 125 years.
Then, in 2020, his conviction was overturned and a new trial was ordered when the court found he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
It took more than two decades for him to receive what Garcia’s family hopes is a final, lasting sentence of 46½ years in prison, handed down last month.
Garcia, 21, was raising her 2-year-old daughter on Zion Street in Hartford when Ashby held her captive inside her apartment for hours on Dec. 2, 2002. She was beaten, sexually assaulted, strangled, stabbed and left there to die as her daughter watched a Christmas movie with neighbors upstairs, records show.
Garcia’s mother and her daughter — who is now older than Garcia ever lived to be — have been in and out of courtrooms for two decades, each time hoping they’ve come to the end of a long, painful legal process.
Hartford Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney John F. Fahey has been working as a state prosecutor for 29 years, and Ashby’s case “has been a part of my career, in some shape or form, for 20 of those years,” he said.
After Ashby’s first conviction, Fahey helped Garcia’s family reckon with the abolition of the death penalty and a new sentencing. Then this summer, he informed Garcia’s now 68-year-old mother, Betsy Betterini, that she would again have to decide whether to go to trial or accept a plea deal.
She chose the plea deal.
Garcia’s family, Fahey said, had felt some semblance of justice knowing Ashby would be awaiting the death penalty, or at least be in prison, for as long as they lived. They had made their peace with that future, as best they could.
And then it “was ripped out from underneath them,” Fahey said.
“I was in a good place a few months ago,” Betterini said. “And then we got a phone call that we’re going to be trying this again and changing the plea. It was devastating for the whole family.”
Betterini said that while she had doubts Ashby would have ever receive the death penalty when his first sentence came down, she at least felt safe knowing he would be behind bars for the rest of his life. And for the rest of her life. That assurance continued with his second sentence.
“I knew that I was going to go to my grave without seeing this guy dead, but it at least gave me comfort that he was going to spend the rest of his life in jail,” she said.
Then his conviction was overturned. The court found that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel when a fellow prisoner got him to make admissions about the case against him. And now, without a life sentence, Betterini doesn’t have that guaranteed. Instead, she lives with the fear that someday he will walk freely on the streets of Hartford again.
During the course of the state’s investigation into Ashby’s crimes, Fahey said he learned of a history of alleged offenses. Just before he turned 18, he allegedly sexually assaulted another woman who was grabbed off the street at knifepoint while playing basketball at Pope Park, according to DNA evidence. Not long after that, Garcia was attacked in her apartment just a few blocks away from the park.
Investigators linked DNA evidence from the Pope Park assault to Garcia’s assault. They hung fliers around the city seeking to identify the attacker, Ashby’s girlfriend found one of the fliers and hung it in her bedroom. She and Ashby kept getting into fights over the poster, Fahey said, leading to a domestic violence incident in which police were called. A warrant was issued for Ashby’s DNA not long after that, and it was a match for both assaults.
In September 2003, a few days before he was charged with Garcia’s murder, Fahey said records showed that Ashby was standing in the rain in Hartford when two men offered him a ride. Ashby shot and killed Nahshon Cohen in that car, “for no reason,” Fahey said.
“He then confessed to that crime and basically said he wanted to see what it was like to kill someone with a revolver,” Fahey said.
Some of those additional crimes were introduced in Ashby’s trial as part of the penalty phase of the case, a near-second trial that is held when a defendant faces the death penalty. The state Supreme Court abolished the death penalty about eight years ago. He eventually pleaded guilty to Cohen’s killing and is serving a 25-year sentence, while the sexual assault charges against him were nolled, Fahey said.
Betterini said the decision to accept a 46 1/2-year sentence this time around was a difficult one to make, knowing his history and what her daughter suffered through.
“I want him in jail forever, but I don’t want to take a chance of him going back to court and something goes awry. I can’t take that chance. It breaks my heart that this is going on but I feel like I didn’t have a choice,” she said.
“After everything is said and done it’s not going to bring my daughter back,” she said. “I can’t keep on destroying my life over what happened, I have to let it rest.”
‘Like ripping the wound open’
Fahey said he saw firsthand the “mental drain” that sitting through the first trial had on Garcia’s family, especially Betterini.
“It destroyed her the first time, not only losing a daughter but living through this entire trial where her life was playing out,” Fahey said.
A trial can be a taxing, emotional and powerless process for a victim’s loved ones, said Su Hintz, an advocate from the Connecticut-based non-profit Survivors of Homicide who accompanies survivors to court to offer support.
Survivors who choose to attend trials, as many do, are seated in the courtroom not far from the person charged with killing their loved one. They see sometimes gruesome crime scene photos that are picked apart, the bloody details shown on screens and described in detail. Panicked 911 recordings are played, often calls that were phoned in by the victim’s loved ones, immortalizing their most distressing moments.
Their loved ones’ character is called into question, and their every life choice is scrutinized publicly by defense attorneys.
Loved ones are traumatized by their loss, and “then they go through a trial where they see and hear the most horrific things that they could see and experience ever,” said Jessica Pizzano, director of victim services at Survivors of Homicide.
One trial is enough to scar them. But to relive the process of a trial — or to decide whether they can — is another level of trauma, Pizzano said.
“It’s utterly and completely devastating.”
Pizzano and Hintz said that overturned convictions, sentence commutations, early releases and sentencing for former death-row inmates can rock any sense of control and safety survivors have worked hard to feel again.
“When something like this happens, it brings them back to the immediate first day that they lost their loved one. It’s like ripping the wound open and they are starting their journey all over again,” she said.
Both Hintz and Pizzano said they’ve worked with several families whose “lives were completely devastated” by changes in sentences. One family member of a murder victim died by suicide after enduring the experience, they said.
In another case, Hintz said, a phone call about a potential sentence change sent a survivor she was working with straight back into the darkest parts of her memory.
“It was like she just got this trigger, she was standing in the hospital all over again, 30 seconds ago, even though it was 20 years ago.”
Fahey said he’s heard clients say they just hope they die before the person convicted of crimes against their loved one is released from prison.
For Garcia, a third sentencing was a painful process that reopened old wounds again. She said she thought this chapter was closed once before and she had to revisit all the pain when he was first resentenced.
“And here we are a third time,” she said. “It makes me angry because they forgot about Elizabeth, the victim. It’s not fair. Elizabeth didn’t deserve to die the way she died, it was traumatizing.
Garcia’s daughter, Jayleah, has spoken at least some of Ashby’s sentencing hearings and spent the majority of her life watching Ashby’s case move through court, telling judges about the pain of never knowing her mother.
Now, she is a senior in college and in so many ways reminds Betterini of a young Garcia at that age. Betterini is trying, she said, to keep Garcia’s memory alive.
“We’re trying to keep a good memory of her mom,” Betterini said. “I tell her that she looks like her, she has the same features. Elizabeth had beautiful hair and every time you saw her she had a different hairdo. Jayleah does the same thing.”
Like her mom, Betterini said her granddaughter has a distinct fashion sense that reminds her of Garcia. She is always trying new things as her mother did, and her style often mimics her mother’s as fashion trends from the early 2000s reemerge.
Betterini said that at the time of her murder, Garcia had just started a new job at a daycare where she could work with children and spend time with Jayleah. She loved talking to people from all walks of life and always easily adapted to her surroundings.
“She would just adjust to her environment to make people feel comfortable, she said. “She had a good heart.”
As a third sentencing stirred up memories, good and bad, for Garcia’s family, it also brought forth new fears. The fear that Ashby may walk free one day.
Pizzano said that in her experience, survivors experience a storm of anxiety, fear, and insecurity when a sentence shifts from a life sentence to a lower number of years they can track on a calendar.
“Their life gets completely thrown into almost a living hell again, they’re in protective mode again, they’re thinking ‘Do I need to move? Do I need to get out of state? What am I supposed to do?’”
In Connecticut, the maximum sentence for murder is 60 years in prison. For many survivors, Pizzano said, that means not ever having to face a future where the person is free in their lifetime.
“For a lot of people, it’s the thought that ‘If they are getting 60 years, I might be dead by then.’” said Pizzano. “And that is so dark when you think about it.”
Pizzano said she can never forget one woman, whose loved one was murdered who said she would not be able to feel any peace until she herself died.
“One of our members told us once, ‘I’m never going to get over this until they close the lid on my casket,’ and that always sticks with me. It broke my heart.”
Pizzano and Hintz said it’s a common misconception that when a trial ends, when a guilty verdict is handed down and a sentence delivered, there is closure for families. There is never closure, they said.
“I can’t even imagine what it must be like to live with that thought. Every day thinking: ‘God I hope I die before this person gets out of jail.’ said Pizzano. “That’s unfathomable.”