A jury Thursday rejected an insanity defense and convicted a Levittown man in the machete slaying of a cancer-stricken grandmother who prosecutors said got in the way of his plot to rob her grandson of drugs and money for “snitching” to police.
Attorneys for Benjamin Lopez, 27, had argued he has schizophrenia, and his co-conspirator killed Laraine Pizzichemi after manipulating him into taking part in the blood-soaked ordeal. The encounter included repeatedly slashing the 73-year-old’s grandson, according to trial testimony.
Jurors found Lopez guilty of first and second-degree murder, along with assault, robbery, burglary and weapon charges in connection with the Sept. 13, 2017, afternoon intrusion at Pizzichemi's home on North Newbridge Road in Levittown.
Acting State Supreme Court Justice Francis Ricigliano scheduled Lopez's sentencing for Sept. 13, which will mark exactly five years since the crime.
Pizzichemi's son-in-law said after court that his family had to withstand "five years of emotional torture" and want the harshest punishment possible for Lopez — who faces up to life in prison.
"The quote, unquote 'broken brain defense' … it would have been laughable if the family was in any mood to laugh … We're just glad that the jury didn't fall for it," said Thomas Dorsa, 66, of Massapequa Park.
He thanked prosecutors and described Pizzichemi, who had been the mother of two and grandmother of four, as "a live wire" he had affectionately nicknamed "Hurricane Laraine."
"She was just a wonderful person and it's a horrible way for her to die," Dorsa added.
Nassau District Attorney Anne Donnelly said in a statement that Lopez "will likely spend the rest of his life in a prison cell" and thanked jurors for "ensuring justice."
Lopez's attorney, Robert Gottlieb, said after court that the case was "an unspeakable, incomprehensible tragedy" and an appeal would be filed.
"We brought everything out that we could about who he is and the jury spoke," he added.
Prosecutor Stefanie Palma told jurors in her closing argument in Nassau County Court that Lopez "knew exactly what he was doing and he absolutely knew it was wrong."
Gottlieb presented jurors with records detailing Lopez’s psychiatric diagnoses and treatments from when he was 7 years old until age 15, when he said Lopez's mental illness began to go untreated.
The Manhattan lawyer also told jurors during the trial that an insanity defense wasn’t a “legal loophole” and they should judge Lopez’s actions dispassionately even if they detested his client.
“Why did it happen? … As for Benjamin Lopez, the why is his serious and documented mental illness,” Gottlieb said of the crime in his closing argument.
“Schizophrenia prevented him from truly appreciating, as we understand it, that his conduct was wrong,” he added. “Whatever was going on in his brain, it resulted in him at that time breaking with reality and losing control over his thinking."
Gottlieb said Lopez had refused to undergo a psychiatric evaluation by an expert for the prosecution because he was paranoid “that the state was going to harm him.”
He also pointed to testimony from a defense expert that schizophrenia is incurable.
But Palma argued the defense had presented no evidence showing Lopez didn’t understand the nature and consequences of his actions that day.
She said medical records that ended in 2011 weren’t relevant and the defense hadn’t proved Lopez was not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
Palma said Lopez and his co-conspirator Deangelo Gill broke into the home to carry out a targeted attack on Pizzichemi’s grandson Mark Depperman “to rob him of his drugs and money and pay him back for snitching.”
Depperman, who has had multiple drug arrests, gave Lopez’s name to police during one and Lopez wanted revenge, she said.
The prosecutor told jurors Pizzichemi got “in the way” of that plan, before Lopez hacked her repeatedly with a machete.
Palma also said the discovery of the grandmother’s blood on Lopez’s sweatshirt and on a machete sheath police found in Lopez’s waistband upon his arrest showed he killed her, not Gill.
Jurors didn’t hear Gill, 23, of Uniondale, is serving 17 years to life in prison after pleading guilty to murder and assault.
Gill’s attorney told Newsday at the time of his plea that his client had accepted responsibility for taking part in violence Lopez had orchestrated.
Palma said during the trial that Depperman, then 24, returned home as Lopez and Gill tried to hide before attacking him as Lopez demanded that he open his safe.
Depperman’s sister, then 21, came home to “blood everywhere” before Lopez pulled out a gun and again demanded that her brother open his safe, according to the prosecution.
When Mark Depperman did, Lopez and Gill stole cash and marijuana, the district attorney's office said.
Palma said an interrupted 911 call Mark Depperman made triggered a police response and Lopez and Gill fled after seeing an officer outside.
Police recovered the machete in the house and soon apprehended Lopez and Gill at Lopez’s nearby home, Palma said.
With search warrants, police recovered a knife Gill used in the attack on Depperman, the gun from the encounter, Pizzichemi’s pocketbook and Lopez’s bloody clothes, according to the prosecution.
Police also recovered Gill’s sweatpants, which had Mark Depperman’s DNA on them but not his grandmother’s, according to Palma.
"My heart goes out to the family," a juror who declined to give his name told Pizzichemi's relatives after the verdict. "Good luck with moving on with your lives."