A murder, two moms and a mess
It's Thanksgiving, so here's a story about mothers and sons.
It starts in 2003, when 19-year-old college student Mark Fisher made his first solo trip to NYC. He met a fellow student, Angel DiPietro, at an Upper East Side bar and followed her and a girlfriend of hers to a party in leafy Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, at the house of her friend John Giuca.
DiPietro left Fisher with her Brooklyn guys as the less than sober night went on. At 6:30 a.m., neighbors of the house she had spent the night at, a short walk away, reported hearing gunshots. Fisher's body, shot five times, was on the street, wrapped in a blanket from Giuca's house. It was a parent's nightmare and tabloid wood: a good kid who didn't survive his first night in the big city.
The partygoers quickly lawyered up, and the case froze. With the Fisher family unhappy, public pressure building and Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes facing a tough reelection bid, a so-called law enforcement dream team came in with fanfare. They upped the pressure and finally flipped some of their suspects into witnesses against others. In 2005, Giuca — despite no direct evidence tying him to the crime — was one of two men convicted of the murder. He's been fighting his 25-years-to-life sentence ever since.
Giuca's mother, who babysat a generation of kids in the neighborhood, took on a second identity as a sexy, single young woman to get close to one of her son's jurors, who eventually told her he'd known of her son, and lied about it to get on the jury. Also, that he didn't like Jews, and thought Giuca (pronounced JEW-ka) was one. She brought that to court; a judge threw her out. But she kept pulling at loose threads in a case with plenty of them.
Separately, the Fisher family — which has always held that other partygoers, too, shared guilt in their son's murder — filed a civil suit against DiPietro, who, along with the young man she spent the night with, were people the police eyed closely but who lawyered up. That, suit, too, was tossed.
Incredibly, DiPietro was later hired, straight out of law school, by Hynes' office. Incredibly, Ken Thompson, who pointed to her ADA job as a sign of Hynes' corruption in their 2013 race, kept her on and even accepted a contribution from her father.
One of Thompson's first moves as DA was creating a conviction review unit to restore some of the confidence in Brooklyn justice his predecessor had squandered. Giuca's new lawyer, Mark Bederow, flooded the unit with papers — most significantly one showing that lead prosecutor Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, now chief of trials for the homicide bureau, railroaded Giuca by hiding key information about her surprise star witness from the judge, jury and defense.
In 2005, things looked bad for Nicolazzi after her two main witnesses, Giuca's girlfriend and his friend who DiPietro had spent the night with, gave starkly conflicting accounts. She closed with a surprise: A junkie on anti-psychotic medications, John Avitto, who said Giuca had confessed to him while they were in Rikers, giving a completely different account of the murder.
That was after Nicolazzi went to court with Avitto at a hearing where he faced years in jail for absconding from a drug program and where she spoke off the record with his judge, who then gave him a pass. No one else at the murder trial knew he had his back to the wall when he volunteered his fantastic story, or that he'd been thrown out of another program days before taking the stand to testify against Giuca. To the contrary, Nicolazzi told the jury he was doing well in his program, just wanted tell the truth for once and asked for and received nothing for doing it.
This January, Thompson denied Giuca's review. But those are serious claims, and this month State Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun began a post-conviction hearing, where the sides effectively flip — think of it as the defense putting the prosecution on trial.
The Fishers have been there each day. Giuca's family, too. This week, Nicolazzi took the stand and stuck to her story , all but daring Chun to call out its utter implausibility.
That she believed Avitto's account then, and still does now (even after one of the 2005 detectives testified he didn't buy it from jump). That going to drug court with Avitto before his murder trial testimony was just how it's done in Brooklyn, and there was no reason to disclose it. That Avitto never wanted, or got, anything for his testimony. That she had no idea then about his well-documented mental issues. In a bit of "Through the Looking-Glass" logic, she said Avitto's account rang true because it clashed with everyone else's — a liar would have had a better story.
I think Thompson chose Giuca to draw the line for what cases are, and are not, open for reconsideration on his watch. That he and Nicolazzi are confident they convicted a bad guy, and know murder cases without a smoking gun are often ugly. That a lot of "good" convictions wouldn't look so good if they were examined as closely as this one has been over the years.
But I want prosecutors held to a higher bar than snitches and skells. "Knowing" someone's guilty of something, even if you can't say what, exactly, is dangerous territory.
With Nicolazzi off the stand, the hearing should wrap up in December. However Chun rules, there will be a mother who feels her son has been denied justice.