Suffolk prosecutors can continue handling the case against the woman charged with running over and killing anti-gang activist Evelyn Rodriguez, despite Rodriguez's close relationship with District Attorney Timothy Sini, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the defense for AnnMarie Drago, 58, of Patchogue, said it would proceed with a defense, citing her years of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder. Because of those conditions, defense attorney Stephen Kunken said Drago perceived the argument his client was having with Rodriguez as a threat and in that state of mind "acted with justification."
Kunken, of Commack, had asked state Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho to appoint a special prosecutor in the case, arguing that Sini's office could have a conflict of interest in prosecuting the person who killed someone the defense said was a friend of the district attorney.
"Mr. Sini has described Mrs. Rodriguez as a friend," Kunken said, noting that Sini has refused to provide letters and phone records between the two. He asked Camacho to at least hold a hearing on the extent of the relationship, both to ensure a fair trial and assure the public of Sini's impartiality.
But Camacho said the personal relationship between Sini and Rodriguez is not enough to require the office's removal from the case or to justify a hearing. He said Assistant District Attorney Marc Lindemann, the trial prosecutor, had so far acted fairly and impartially in prosecuting the case and that there has been no prejudice against Drago.
"There is no question that a personal relationship existed between Mrs. Rodriguez and the district attorney," Camacho said, "maybe even a close relationship."
But there's no sign that relationship has affected the prosecution, Camacho said.
Assistant District Attorney Brendan Ahern, chief of the Vehicular Crimes Bureau, said the prosecution is unaffected by the relationship between Sini and Rodriguez. "We're seeking justice and a fair process," he said, on behalf of Sini's office.
Kunken said he was disappointed by the ruling, but will move forward now with a justification defense for Drago. He said his client, a nurse, was assaulted in 2008 while medicating a psychiatric patient at Stony Brook University Hospital, and that she has a documented history of treatment for PTSD and panic disorder.
"Her psychologically fragile state contributed to this whole episode," Kunken said. "She was under siege. She was just in fear for her safety."
Drago is charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of Rodriguez and faces lesser charges related to the destruction of a memorial to Rodriguez's daughter, Kayla Cuevas, 16, and her friend, Nisa Mickens, 15. Rodriguez, 50, was run over while arguing with Drago about the memorial on a Brentwood cul-de-sac.
Prosecutors have said Drago was trying to sell her mother's home and was irritated by the memorial set up in front of the house in honor of Cuevas. She felt the collection of cards, candles, photos, signs, balloons and an elaborate floral arrangement on a table where the victims had been found two years earlier would discourage home buyers, prosecutors said. So she stuffed as much of it as she could in a garbage can, popping balloons and smashing vases to make them fit, they said.
Drago threw the rest, including the table, into the back of her Nissan Rogue, prosecutors have said. A neighbor alerted Rodriguez to what was happening and she and her partner, Freddy Cuevas, Kayla's dad, rushed to the scene, prosecutors said.
When they got there, Rodriguez and Cuevas saw Drago and her boyfriend preparing to leave for a weekend upstate, prosecutors said. Rodriguez and Cuevas demanded their property back. Cuevas warned Drago that if she moved her car she'd hit Rodriguez, prosecutors said.
But she accelerated, knocked Rodriguez down and ran over her, prosecutors said. Drago remained at the scene.