The words of a dead witness came to life Wednesday in a Mineola courtroom as the prosecutor who won a conviction in the first trial of a man being retried for a 1998 double slaying also became a witness to read the old testimony to a new jury.
A federal judge previously ruled John Pierotti, 65, had a severe hearing impairment that made his first trial unfair. In 2018, the judge ordered prison officials to release the defendant, then serving life behind bars, unless prosecutors took steps to retry him.
In 2000, a Nassau jury found Pierotti guilty of first-degree murder and weapon charges in the Dec. 23, 1998, shooting deaths of carpenters Willis Frost, 41, and Gerard Kennedy Jr., 36, outside a Baldwin tavern then known as the Dragger Inn.
But the jurors who will decide Pierotti’s case now don't know about that verdict. In this trial, the former Freeport man wears headphones in court to amplify the proceedings and microphone sound checks are done before testimony begins each day.
Nassau prosecutor Michael Walsh, now chief of the district attorney’s Major Offense Bureau, took on the role of late Baldwin firefighter and nurse Robert Denaro in court Wednesday.
From the witness stand, he repeated the account of Denaro, then 33, who had described hearing a series of pops — a pattern without rhythm — that turned out to be gunshots while in his apartment a few doors down from the Milburn Avenue bar.
Prosecutor Martin Meaney on Wednesday assumed Walsh’s role in the mid-2000 trial as he also read from the transcript in what became an unusual exchange as Walsh replied to his own questions from nearly two decades ago.
He recounted Denaro leaving his apartment to get bagels, coming upon Frost's lifeless body in the road, and tavern patrons soon pointing out Kennedy laying nearby — also dead.
Denaro had described using his fire department radio to call for help and later hearing a tall, unkempt man who appeared drunk say he had to get away from the area as he talked to one of Denaro's fellow firefighters.
Walsh, still reading Denaro's previous testimony, told Meaney, after he flipped to the role of Pierotti's former defense attorney, that it was true he never mentioned anything about the sequencing of the gunshots in written statements he gave police.
Pierotti claims he shot the men in self-defense after grabbing the gun from Frost following an argument. But the prosecution says Pierotti brought the .22-caliber revolver to the scene, and because the victims' bodies were found far apart, they couldn't have attacked him.
The victims had gone outside the tavern to use drugs in a van before the defendant opened fire on the unarmed men, according to the prosecution. But Pierotti's lawyer, Dana Grossblatt, has told jurors Frost got angry when Pierotti approached for a second time to ask for a battery jump for his van before Frost took out a gun and a struggle ensued that left Pierotti "the last man standing."
Walsh’s time on the witness stand followed testimony a day earlier from Pierotti’s former girlfriend, Melissa Johnson. During questioning by Meaney Tuesday, she recalled Pierotti leaving their home with a .22-caliber gun that had belonged to her late father.
Johnson, who has three children with Pierotti, said he woke her when he got home later and said: "I just killed two people."
The witness said she "stood by" Pierotti until months later when she gave police bullets that were his and told them about her father's gun and Pierotti's confession.
In a cross-examination, Grossblatt tried to portray Johnson as a liar and a drug addict who in December had to be revived with Narcan.
Johnson admitted she originally told police Pierotti never had a gun. She also said she never told a grand jury, as she testified Tuesday, that Pierotti said he was going to rob an acquaintance when he left the house before the shooting. The witness also admitted telling a reporter at Pierotti's arraignment he was innocent.