In arguments before a state appellate court, a lawyer for a Mastic man convicted of fatally stabbing a woman said the verdict should be reversed because the jury was allowed to hear police testimony that the man refused to take a polygraph exam during his interrogation.
Guenter Wende, now 48, was convicted in 2011 of killing Laura Pizzini, 25, in her Mastic apartment five years ago. Police and prosecutors say he was obsessed with her and finally acted after she made social plans with another man in his presence at a bar. She let him in when he showed up later at her home.
After he stabbed her through the stomach, he kissed her on the cheek and lay down with her on the kitchen floor while she bled to death, prosecutors said.
During the trial, detectives testified that Wende later insisted that he didn't hear them knocking on his door when they were searching for him soon after the crime. They challenged him to take a polygraph exam about that issue and he declined. Courts have long held that polygraph testimony is inadmissible at trial because the machines cannot reliably prove if someone is lying.
Appellate attorney Kirk Brandt of the Legal Aid Society argued Tuesday before the Appellate Division Second Department in Central Islip that the jury should not have heard about Wende's refusal to take a polygraph exam.
"It's shifting of the burden of proof," Brandt said, noting that the defense never has to prove a defendant's innocence.
But some justices asked if there was a legitimate reason for the issue to come out at the trial. Justice Leonard Austin noted that Wende's trial lawyer repeatedly asked detectives if Wende was cooperative in every way while in custody. This was one small way in which Wende was not cooperative, Austin suggested.
After eight hours of questioning, Wende ultimately signed a statement describing how and why he killed Pizzini. Brandt noted that came after bruises appeared on Wende's head during the interrogation, but detectives said during the trial he had banged his head on the wall in remorse.
Justice Hector Lasalle asked if there was any evidence that police abused Wende, but Brandt said there was none because Wende did not testify.
Assistant District Attorney Anne E. Oh told the justice the polygraph issue was not important in the long run. It came up only in relation to the side issue of whether Wende was avoiding talking to detectives, and she said Suffolk County Court Judge Barbara Kahn properly instructed jurors that they could not infer Wende was guilty from his refusal to take the exam.
But Austin wondered why that was necessary at all.
"Why do you need to go to an area that's so problematic?" he asked.
Oh said there was no reason to reverse the conviction because of this issue.
"It's a pretty clear-cut case to me," she said afterward.