Ann Marie Drago arrives at court early Friday morning as...

Ann Marie Drago arrives at court early Friday morning as jurors in her criminally negligent homicide trial deliberate for a third day. Credit: Tom Lambui/Tom Lambui

The jury in Ann Marie Drago’s trial announced a partial verdict on Friday but remained deadlocked over the top charge of criminally negligent homicide in the death of anti-gang activist Evelyn Rodriguez.

After nearly five hours of deliberation on Friday, the jury sent the judge a note that said there were “strong and opposing views on both sides” on the criminally negligent homicide charge.

State Supreme Court Justice Richard Ambro asked the jurors, who have spent more than 16 hour reviewing evidence and discussing the case in Riverhead, to return to Suffolk County criminal court on Monday to resume deliberations.

Drago, 62, of Patchogue, did not show emotion after the jury announced that it was deadlocked for a second consecutive day.

Drago and her attorney, Matthew Hereth of Suffolk County Legal Aid, declined to speak to reporters after they left the courtroom. 

Ambro permitted the panel of seven men and five women on Friday afternoon to announce their verdict on lesser charges, which jurors said they had reached on Thursday.

The jury found Drago was not guilty of fourth-degree criminal mischief and guilty of petit larceny. Ambro did not permit them to reveal their decision until late Friday. 

The jury had told Ambro on Thursday that it was “solidly deadlocked,” but the judge told them early Friday morning to resume deliberations. “You haven’t been deliberating that long,” he said, urging the jurors to keep their minds open as they reviewed evidence and discussed the case. 

“You should listen to and consider the views of your fellow jurors,” Ambro said.

Jurors sent Ambro several notes seeking clarification of law throughout the day, including one asking him to define reasonable doubt. Jurors in criminal cases are told evidence presented by prosecutors must be beyond a reasonable doubt for them to convict.

“We will never come to a verdict on criminally negligent homicide,” the jury said in a note presented to Ambro before the lunch break. 

Shortly after 4 p.m., the jury informed Ambro that they still had not come to a unanimous decision on the criminally negligent homicide charge. 

Evelyn Rodriguez appears at a news conference by Suffolk County...

Evelyn Rodriguez appears at a news conference by Suffolk County officials in Hauppauge in April 2017. Credit: AP/Frank Eltman

Drago was charged with criminally negligent homicide after striking and running over Rodriguez during an encounter on Sept. 14, 2018, with her Nissan Rogue. She was additionally charged with petit larceny and criminal mischief for dismantling a memorial for Rodriguez had placed for her slain 16-year-old daughter, Kayla Cuevas, and placing some of the items in her car.

It was that act that led Rodriguez and husband Freddy Cuevas to confront Drago on Ray Court in Brentwood. The memorial had been set up for a 6 p.m. vigil remembering Kayla Cuevas, whose body was found by Drago's mother in her backyard on that same Brentwood street two years earlier.

The nearly two-week trial featured testimony from 14 prosecution witnesses, many of whom told the jury about memorials that had been set up on the cul-de-sac in the time since the bodies of Cuevas and 15-year-old friend, Nisa Mickens, were killed together by MS-13 gang members and were discovered there.

A neighbor testified that Drago said she was frustrated by the memorial when she cleaned it up on the day of the incident.

A News 12 reporter alerted Rodriguez after Drago took apart the memorial before she returned to the scene.

"That was my [expletive] daughter," Rodriguez could be heard shouting on footage recorded by News 12. 

It was after Cuevas made his way to the back of Drago's car that she took her foot off the brake, turned her wheel to the left and began to drive forward in the direction of Rodriguez, the video showed.

The defense maintained that a step Rodriguez took to the left just as Drago accelerated that caused her foot to get stuck under the front driver's side tire. Former Chief Suffolk County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Kaplan told the jury skull fractures and bruising of the brain from when Rodriguez's head struck the pavement caused her death. 

Assistant Suffolk County District Attorney Laura Newcombe said during closing arguments Wednesday that even if Rodriguez had not taken the step forward she would have been struck by Drago’s vehicle, as she positioned herself in plain sight on the driver’s side, in the only direction Drago could travel to avoid hitting Rodriguez’s minivan as it blocked her vehicle.

“The defendant failed to perceive the risk when she took her foot off the brake, turned the wheel to the left and hit the gas right in the direction of Evelyn Rodriguez,” Newcombe said.

Hereth said attempting to drive away from the chaotic scene was the only reasonable action for his client to take, as Cuevas and Rodriguez continued to shout expletives at her. 

“Fight or flight,” the defense attorney said. “Freddy and Evelyn were there for a fight, [Drago] was not … Flight was the only reasonable thing to do.”

Newcombe said Drago could have called 911, inched her SUV forward or honked as she was attempting to leave the scene with some of Rodriguez’s belongings in her car and damaged items from the memorial in a nearby trash can.

“She wasn’t fleeing out of fear, she was fleeing out of guilt,” Newcombe said.

Rodriguez received nationwide attention as an activist for speaking out against MS-13 after she was the guest of then-President Donald Trump during a 2018 State of the Union address and later met with the president that same year when he visited Brentwood to talk about gang violence with local leaders. 

The trial before Ambro in Riverhead was the second for Drago. Her previous conviction was overturned in July 2022, when a state appeals court ruled prosecutors made improper comments during her three-week trial before then-acting state Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho.

Drago spent a week in state prison before she was released while awaiting her appeal. She had been sentenced to nine months in prison. 

With Grant Parpan

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