More than half of the first round of prospective jurors in the upcoming trial of a woman, charged with killing anti-gang activist Evelyn Rodriguez, were excused Tuesday, with dozens conceding they could not be impartial in deciding the emotionally charged case.
AnnMarie Drago, 58, of Patchogue, is accused of running over Rodriguez, 50, in Brentwood on Sept. 14, 2018 after an argument about the destruction of a memorial to the victim's daughter, Kayla Cuevas, 16, and her friend, Nisa Mickens, 15.
The teens were murdered in 2016 at the hands of MS-13 gang members, authorities said. Their deaths launched Rodriguez’s activism against the brutal street gang, bringing her to the White House to meet with President Donald Trump.
Drago, a former nurse, pleaded not guilty to criminally negligent homicide, criminal mischief and petit larceny. She faces a maximum of 1 1/3 to 4 years in prison if convicted of the top count.
On Tuesday, 115 potential jurors flooded Suffolk County District Court in Central Islip, where they were weeded out if they indicated they were unfairly influenced by the case’s pretrial publicity. Another 100 people will be prescreened Thursday, with formal jury selection beginning Feb. 24.
State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho told the group basic facts about the case but said the trial "has absolutely nothing to do with MS-13." Camacho asked the potential jurors to focus on the facts of the case and not on sympathy for the victim.
"We are looking for fair and impartial jurors who can listen to the evidence and come into the case with an open mind," Camacho said.
Camacho brought the prospective jurors into the courtroom individually, questioning them about their familiarity with the case, if they could be open-minded and any scheduling concerns. The trial is expected to last about two weeks.
In total, 49 potential jurors indicated they could serve, while 66 others were excused — with nearly half arguing that their familiarity with the case made them favor the prosecution or that they were too emotional about it to be fair.
Others cited financial hardships, child care, travel or medical issues. One man admitted a racial bias and another conceded that he was on oxycodone for re-occuring pain. One man stated his mistaken belief that Rodriguez was killed because of her relationship with Trump.
Only a handful of prospective jurors expressed sympathy for Drago and said they were likely to favor her acquittal. "I don't think I can be impartial," said one woman. "I was very affected by what happened."
A man told Camacho he has a "preconceived notion that she's guilty" while another described Drago's actions as "totally wrong."
A handful of individuals were excused because they had lost family members to violence or vehicular accidents and worried that their experiences would color their judgment. Others had a personal connection to Rodriguez or the case. They include a former teacher of Cuevas and Mickens; a Suffolk police dispatcher who listened to the 911 call from the scene and the daughter of a New York Post photographer who took pictures of the fatal crash.
Drago’s defense attorney, Stephen Kunken of Commack, said the process was working.
"I am hopeful that everyone is being upfront and so far it seems that they're being honest about forming an opinion," Kunken said.
Prosecutors contend that Drago was trying to sell her mother's Brentwood home and was worried that a memorial — constructed ahead of a two-year anniversary remembrance ceremony — would scare off potential buyers. Drago discarded several items from the memorial and placed other items in her car and drove off, prosecutors said.
When Drago returned a half-hour later she became involved in a verbal dispute with Rodriguez and Kayla's father, Freddy Cuevas. The parents stood in front of Drago's car, blocking her from driving away, authorities said. Cuevas warned Drago that if she moved the car she'd strike Rodriguez, prosecutors said. But Drago abruptly accelerated the vehicle, knocking Rodriguez down and striking her with the car's front left tire and rear left tire, police said.
Some of the altercation was captured on camera by News 12 Long Island.
Kunken has indicated he would present evidence of Drago's yearslong treatment for post-traumatic stress, dating to when she was assaulted by a psychiatric patient in 2008.
"What the prosecution has to prove in this case is that my client possessed the criminal, culpable mental state required to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.