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Experts: Driver accused in Rodriguez death trial had PTSD

Psychologist Elizabeth Smyth took the stand at the

Psychologist Elizabeth Smyth took the stand at the trial of Ann Marie Drago on Thursday. Credit: John Roca

The driver who ran over Evelyn Rodriguez during a confrontation on a Brentwood street was then in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder following an attack by a patient at her nursing job a decade earlier, a psychologist testified Thursday.

Ann Marie Drago’s “fundamental sense of safety and security … remained shattered,” said Elizabeth Smyth, the licensed clinical psychologist who was treating her at the time she killed Rodriguez.

Smyth testified as a witness for Drago, 59, of Patchogue, who is standing trial in Suffolk County Court on charges of criminally negligent homicide, criminal mischief and petit larceny.

The Hauppauge-based psychologist told jurors that a patient in Stony Brook University Hospital’s psychiatric ward viciously attacked Drago in April 2008 while she was working there as a nurse.

The patient came up behind Drago, punched her in the head and dragged her body before straddling her waist and choking her until other hospital staff intervened, Smyth said.

Drago returned to work six months later, but didn’t feel safe, according to the psychologist, who said the woman's symptoms worsened and she wasn't able to return to nursing positions that involved treating patients.

Brooklyn-based forensic psychologist N.G. Berrill  also testified for the defense Thursday before Drago's attorneys rested their case without calling her as a witness.

Prosecutors say Drago acted with criminal intent when she ran over Rodriguez, 50, of Brentwood, in her Nissan Rogue shortly after 4 p.m. on Sept. 14, 2018.

It happened after Rodriguez and her companion, Freddy Cuevas, ran up to the Nissan — cursing and shouting — while demanding the return of items from a memorial for their slain 16-year-old daughter, Kayla Cuevas, evidence has shown.

Prosecutors say Drago dismantled the memorial, trashing some parts and loading others in her Nissan, so potential buyers of her mother’s home — due to stop by the Ray Court property — wouldn’t be scared off.

Rodriguez had set up the memorial ahead of a vigil that was planned for 6 p.m. that evening to remember Kayla on the second anniversary of the discovery of her body in the backyard of Drago’s mother.

Kayla and her friend Nisa Mickens, 15, died at the hands of MS-13 gang members on the same street in September 2016, according to federal prosecutors.

Drago’s lead attorney, Stephen Kunken, contends the crash was a tragic accident and his client was fleeing from a threat and “scared to death” when she drove away — believing Rodriguez was no longer in front of her vehicle.

Berrill testified Thursday that some people experience tunnel vision —  a "limited vision" — during episodes in which they fear for their lives.

The forensic psychologist said he examined Drago last year and concluded she had been suffering from PTSD and that it triggered a physiological reaction known as a fight or flight response at the time of the confrontation.

"She felt herself under siege ... There's no question that she became terribly afraid ... and really unsure as to what to do," Berrill testified.

But Berrill also agreed with prosecutor Marc Lindemann during a cross-examination that patients sometimes lie during psychological exams and a person facing a criminally negligent homicide charge could have a motive to do so.

Prosecutors claim Drago stepped on the gas despite warnings from Cuevas that she would hit Rodriguez if she did. They say the couple didn't confront Drago with any physical threats or weapons before she accelerated while Rodriguez was standing at her front driver’s side tire.

The victim took a step forward at the same time, before one of her feet caught under a tire and she fell to the ground, with both driver’s side tires running her over, prosecutors say.

Smyth also testified Thursday that Drago suffered a severe panic attack at her job working at the state insurance fund in August 2017. The psychologist said that was right before she personally began treating Drago, in connection with a worker's compensation case related to the nurse's 2008 workplace attack.

Smyth said she diagnosed Drago with PTSD, major depressive disorder, pain disorder and panic disorder. Her notes from an August 2018 therapy session with Drago showed the woman still felt overwhelmed at times and couldn't cope with stress in a healthy way. 

Smyth also testified during questioning by Kunken that someone with PTSD might have a more sensitive threshold when it came to triggering a fight or flight response.

But the expert also told Lindemann later that she never referred Drago to a psychiatrist for prescription medication to treat her symptoms.

In addition, Smyth agreed that as part of Drago’s treatment, she worked on training her in relaxation, coping techniques and conflict resolution.

The psychologist said Drago’s condition improved in 2018 “in some realms” and agreed Drago held down part-time jobs teaching people to become home health aides and certified nursing assistants.

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