Mother Justice

When her son was sentenced to 25 years for Brooklyn’s 2003 “grid kid” slaying, Doreen Quinn Giuliano was sure he’d been wrongfully convicted. To prove it, she went undercover, testing her sanity, her marriage, and the justice system.

by Christopher Ketcham
Vanity Fair

November 2007, an apartment in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn: Dee Quinn is partying with a man she often identifies in her journal as “Target.” Dee is 46 but doesn’t look it. She is tiny, girlish, with golden-blond hair. Her breasts are high in a push-up bra. Wearing heels, she arches her back. Target, who is 32 and has a shaved head, doesn’t want sex. He’s hungry. Dee cooks. They talk at the bar in the kitchen.

Hidden in her handbag on the nearby table is a digital recorder. She will secretly tape their discussion that night, and will eventually gather countless hours of conversation. She cooks Target dinner. They drink wine. They smoke weed. Target likes marijuana. At two a.m., Target leaves the apartment with a full stomach.

Only then does Dee let the mask fall. Her body shakes. She breaks into tears, overcome with the stress of months of deception. She has had Target under surveillance for an entire year before making contact, going so far as to rent an apartment around the corner from the house where he lives with his mother.

She stops crying, steadies her hand, reaches into the handbag, turns off the tape recorder, tests the sound, douses the lights, sits on the couch, and waits. She waits for Target to get on his way. She can’t be seen leaving the safe house, not at this late hour.

When she finally steps into the cold Brooklyn night, she drives five miles—not far, but in Brooklyn that distance can mean traversing cultural continents—to a three-story house in a neighborhood of old Colonial and Victorian homes, an area called Prospect Park South. Her husband, Frank, has waited up for her, as he has for the past six months, worried that she wouldn’t make it home.

Dee’s real name is Doreen Quinn Giuliano.

“What’d you get outta him tonight?” asks Frank.

“Nothin’,” says Doreen. “Nothin’ that helps.”

They’ve been married 18 years, but neither has ever experienced this kind of strangeness, this disquiet of a double life. They lie in bed awhile, but Doreen can’t sleep, and by six a.m. Frank has to get up for work. “I’ll get breakfast,” she says.

Four years earlier, on the morning of October 12, 2003, two blocks from Doreen’s home, a 19-year-old Fairfield University sophomore named Mark Fisher was found shot to death, his body splayed on the sidewalk, his face and chest riddled with bullets. He was draped in a yellow blanket and his shirt was torn open, the buttons gone.

The blanket, it turned out, was the property of Doreen Giuliano. It apparently had been given to Fisher by Doreen’s son from her first marriage—20-year-old John Giuca—to keep Fisher warm against the night chill. Doreen had been in Florida vacationing with Frank that evening, and her son John had thrown a party while she was gone. Fisher ended up at the party, introduced to John’s circle by a friend of a friend. He was, in reality, a complete stranger, far from his home, in Andover, New Jersey. Fisher had too much to drink and by night’s end he needed a place to crash. John Giuca would later claim he last saw Fisher around five a.m. falling asleep on a couch in the house, wrapped in the yellow blanket. Sometime between five and seven a.m., Fisher had made his way out into the Brooklyn morning. By seven a.m., police were already retrieving his remains.

New York’s tabloids called it the “grid-kid slay” because of Fisher’s prominence as a high-school football star. John Giuca would soon become the prime murder suspect. More than 100 articles would run in the dailies, and a book would be published about the case, a supermarket softcover by Robert Mladinich, an ex–N.Y.P.D. detective, and Michael Benson, called Hooked Up for Murder. The book bore the tagline “First you party . . . then you die.”

According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, the strapping Fisher had fallen victim to a penny-ante teen gang, run by Giuca, called “the Ghetto Mafia”—a possible offshoot of the notorious Crips. In the hours before dawn on October 12—so the story went—Giuca sent one of his “capos,” a 17-year-old high-school dropout named Antonio Russo, to “get a body” for the gang. The New York Post followed the D.A.’s lead and ran a banner headline: GRIDDER SLAIN TO BOOST GANG’S REP.

Investigators lined up several witnesses who said Russo had confessed to being the gunman. What’s more, Russo had acted suspiciously immediately afterward, suddenly cutting off his dreadlocks and taking a trip to California. The case against Giuca, however, was circumstantial, fragmentary, contradictory. Almost a year after the killing, in late 2004, two arrests were made: first Russo, then Giuca. A year later they went to trial before two separate juries on robbery and murder charges.

Doreen sat in the courtroom for three weeks during her son’s trial. Many of his friends attended in “Free John Giuca” T-shirts. “Six hours a day I was there. And every day I thought the truth was gonna come out,” she now says. “I kept waiting for it. Then, day after day, it didn’t. And it never did.”

What did come out was the testimony of four witnesses against Giuca, each of whom told the court a somewhat different story implicating him in the killing. One witness, a friend of Giuca’s who had attended the party on Mark Fisher’s last night alive, claimed that Giuca called him at six in the morning the day of the murder and later confessed he’d directed Russo to commit the crime. A second witness said that around the same period Giuca told her he had lent the gun to Russo but did not order the killing or the robbery. A jailhouse informant, meanwhile, was brought out to testify that while in lockup with Giuca, many months after the murder, Giuca actually admitted to pistol-whipping Fisher and standing by as “one of his other friends” pulled the trigger. Giuca, in fact, admitted to getting rid of an illegal gun after the shooting, though the weapon was of a different caliber than the one used to kill Fisher.

“This case begins, continues, and ends with John Giuca,” stated Assistant D.A. Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, during her closing remarks. “All roads in this case lead back to this defendant. If it were not for this defendant, Mark Fisher would still be alive today.”

The jury that heard the Russo case—listening to evidence pointing to Russo as the triggerman—took two days to find him guilty, nearly deadlocking. The jury that deliberated John Giuca’s fate had taken just two hours to convict him. Doreen couldn’t help thinking that the jury had been primed for a guilty verdict.

The judge sentenced both men to 25 years to life. “This was a callous crime, and the defendants’ reactions were callous—brutal, callous, and shockingly senseless. So my sentence will be callous,” the judge addressed the courtroom. The date was October 19, 2005, a little more than two years after Fisher’s murder. Doreen felt as if she had been through this before. When she was 31 years old, in 1992, she lost her four-year-old daughter, her second-born with Frank, to cerebral palsy. Frank was at work, Doreen was preparing dinner, and Mallory was in her stroller in the living room. Doreen looked up and saw the girl wasn’t right. “And I knew then she was dying. I rubbed her head and talked softly to her and held back my tears. She took one last deep breath. Then I laid her down on the sofa and knelt beside her.”

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