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Nearly 90 potential jurors for trial in death of gang activist Evelyn Rodriguez

Patchogue resident AnnMarie Drago arrives at First District

Patchogue resident AnnMarie Drago arrives at First District Court in Central Islip on Thursday as jury screening continued for her upcoming trial on criminal negligent homicide and other charges. Credit: James Carbone

Nearly 90 Suffolk residents are potential jurors in the trial of a Patchogue woman accused of running over and killing anti-gang activist Evelyn Rodriguez in 2018 near a Brentwood memorial for her slain daughter.

State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho completed a second day of pre-screening for potential jurors Thursday in the upcoming trial of AnnMarie Drago, 58, with 86 people set to return later this month for additional scrutiny.

Drago, a former nurse, faces criminal negligent homicide and other charges in connection with the Sept. 14, 2018, death of Rodriguez after an argument over the destruction of a memorial marking two years since the killings of the victim's daughter, Kayla Cuevas, 16, and her friend, Nisa Mickens, 15.

The teens were beaten to death in September 2016 at the hands of MS-13 gang members, police said. Their slayings launched Rodriguez’s activism against the notorious street gang, bringing her to the White House to meet with President Donald Trump and earning her a seat in the gallery for his 2018 State of the Union address.

Drago also faces criminal mischief and petit larceny charges for the alleged destruction of the memorial. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges and faces a maximum of 1 1/3 to 4 years in prison if convicted of the top count. 

Her defense attorney, Stephen Kunken of Commack, has said Drago felt in danger after arguing with Rodriguez and her companion. Kunken plans to present evidence at trial of Drago's treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder that he said dates back to 2008 when a psychiatric patient assaulted her.

On Thursday, Camacho interviewed 84 prospective jurors to gauge their familiarity with the highly publicized case and weed out those with a predetermined opinion on Drago's guilt. 

"We are looking for jurors who can be fair, impartial and keep an open mind," Camacho told the group, emphasizing the case has "absolutely nothing to do with MS-13," other than background related to the deaths of Cuevas and Mickens.

A total of 37 prospective jurors told Camacho Thursday they could serve and render a fair and just verdict. Those individuals will return to court in Central Islip on Feb. 24 for formal jury selection, along with 49 others prescreened Tuesday. Drago's trial is expected to last about two weeks.

Another 48 prospective jurors were excused — with nearly half arguing that familiarity with the case led them to sympathize with Rodriguez.

"I feel badly for the person that got hit and I don't think I can be fair," a prospective juror told Camacho before the judge excused her.

Another excused juror told the judge he couldn't grasp how a driver "can run someone over by accident."

At one point, a visibly frustrated Camacho vented at another prospective juror, calling his inability to be impartial "disgusting."

Other prospective jurors were excused, citing financial hardships, child care, travel, work schedules, medical issues and a lack of fluency in English. A handful were excused because they knew Rodriguez, her daughter, or because of familiarity with the case.

Prosecutors contend Drago was trying to sell her mother's Brentwood home and was worried that a memorial — constructed by Rodriguez ahead of a two-year anniversary ceremony for her daughter's death — would scare off potential buyers.

Before the ceremony, Drago discarded several items from the memorial and placed others in her SUV before driving off, prosecutors said. 

When Drago returned a half-hour later, officials said, she argued with Rodriguez and Kayla's father, Freddy Cuevas. The parents stood in front of Drago's Nissan Rogue, blocking her from driving away, authorities said. Cuevas warned Drago that if she moved the SUV, it would strike Rodriguez, according to prosecutors.

But Drago abruptly accelerated the Rogue, knocking Rodriguez down and striking her with the SUV's front- and rear-left tires, police said. 

Some of the altercation was captured on News12 Long Island video and will be shown at trial.

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