ALBANY -- The state's highest court wrestled Thursday with whether a Farmingville man got a fair trial before he was convicted of killing a Southampton bar bouncer by holding him in a headlock, in part because the defense claimed a Suffolk judge improperly prevented the defense from challenging how long that hold lasted.
The Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case of Anthony Oddone, 30, who was convicted in 2010 of first-degree manslaughter in the death of Andrew Reister, 40, of Hampton Bays. Reister, an off-duty correction officer working as a bouncer at the Publick House in Southampton, pulled Oddone off a table where he'd been dancing. Oddone wrapped his arm around Reister's neck until he collapsed and had to be pulled off the bouncer, witnesses testified. Oddone is serving a 17-year sentence.
Although Oddone's appeal was wide-ranging, the judges Thursday focused mostly on trial testimony about how long Oddone had Reister in a headlock. Oddone's attorney, Marc Wolinsky, argued that Oddone acted in self-defense and fear, and didn't have Reister in a headlock for as long as former Deputy Medical Examiner James Wilson and some eyewitnesses testified.
"Choking somebody who's already passed out is a funny sort of self-defense," Judge Robert Smith said, skeptically. "You don't need a stopwatch to know he's held on too long."
Wolinsky attacked Wilson's conclusion that it took two to four minutes of neck pressure to stop Reister's heart, and that Reister's history of arrhythmia was irrelevant.
During defense questioning about how Wilson came to that conclusion, Wilson had testified that it was based on burst blood vessels in Reister's eyelids and his interpretation was from his years of experience, not from any scientific study.
Wolinsky said mere experience is "just never enough," particularly when other forensic scientists and cardiologists say that fatal heart stoppage can be caused by as little as 10 to 15 seconds of neck compression. He said Suffolk County Court C. Randall Hinrichs, now a State Supreme Court justice, should have disallowed that testimony.
Hinrichs also erred, Wolinsky said, by refusing to allow the defense to call Dr. Steven Penrod, a psychologist who would have testified as an expert that eyewitnesses routinely overestimate how long a traumatic event lasts.
Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Anne E. Oh said Hinrichs ruled properly and that Wilson's testimony was appropriate. Smith asked her if Hinrichs shouldn't have held a hearing to ensure Wilson's scientific theory was solid.
"Isn't there a risk of charlatans selling junk science to jurors?" he said.
"Yes, but not in this case," Oh replied.
Judge Eugene Piggott Jr., noting that Reister's fellow correction officers showed up in large numbers throughout the trial, said Hinrichs could have allowed Penrod to testify on perceptions of time.
"What did the judge do to show he was not favoring the [prosecution] on every single issue?" he said.
Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam said Penrod might have helped jurors make sense of the wide range of time estimates witnesses gave for how long the headlock lasted.
Oh said although the duration of the hold was key, the force of it ultimately was more important in stopping Reister's heart.