Prosecutors in the case of a former Port Jefferson resident accused of shoving and killing a beloved elderly Manhattan voice teacher, said in court Thursday they expect to have a psychological assessment completed next month to gauge her mental state at the time of the alleged attack.
Defense attorneys for Lauren Pazienza, 27, said they have been preparing their own psychological assessment in an effort to show that she had been drinking excessively on the night of March 10, just before allegedly shoving Barbara Gustern, 87, as the victim stood outside her apartment on the West Side of Manhattan. Gustern initially survived the fall but died five days later as a result of head injuries when she hit the ground.
Pazienza appeared in New York State Supreme Court Thursday for a brief hearing before Judge Felicia Mennin wearing jail garb, her hair tied back in a pony tail. She did not speak during the short proceeding. Pazienza's parents left the court with her defense attorney, Arthur Aidala, and didn’t speak to reporters.
If the prosecution and defense experts agree that Pazienza was intoxicated and had other psychological issues at the time she allegedly shoved Gustern, that might be of use in plea negotiations to resolve the case without the need for a trial.
Pazienza, currently being held without bail on Rikers Island, faces a top charge of first-degree manslaughter, which requires prosecutors to show intent to cause serious harm that led to a death. But intoxication can be a defense that undercuts the element of intent and could reduce the charge to second-degree manslaughter. If the experts disagree on the issue of intoxication, that could result in a criminal trial.
Legal sources said that Pazienza has already rejected a plea deal that would have capped her prison sentence at 15 years. In earlier court filings, Aidala maintained that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office overcharged the case. Aidala also indicated in the filings that Pazienza was intoxicated when Gustern was attacked, undercutting the intent to cause serious physical injury. Pazienza also faces two accounts of assault.
The police investigation determined that Pazienza, who was living at the time in Astoria, had been drinking and eating with her fiance in a park nearby Gustern’s apartment building before the attack. After a park official said the couple had to leave, Pazienza stormed off in anger and then walked into Gustern, shoving the voice teacher and knocking her to the ground while calling her an expletive, according to the NYPD in March. A surveillance video captured Pazienza looking back toward the spot where Gustern fell.
Pazienza is due back in court on Jan. 26, the day prosecutors said their expert report would be completed.