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First criminal trial on LI since start of pandemic opens in Nassau

Faye Doomchin leaves Nassau police headquarters in Mineola

Faye Doomchin leaves Nassau police headquarters in Mineola in 2018. Credit: Howard Schnapp

History was made in a Mineola courtroom Monday as Long Island’s first criminal trial got underway since the start of a pandemic that for months has caused New York’s courts to use a virtual format.

As the in-person proceeding began, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis was apparent. Acting State Supreme Court Justice Robert Bogle wore a face mask and presided in the nonjury trial from a bench topped by a clear plastic barrier resembling a bank teller window.

Across the room, murder defendant Faye Doomchin, 68, of Great Neck, sat next to her attorney wearing both a mask and a plastic shield over her face. The few courtroom spectators, also masked, listened to proceedings while spaced apart in seats that court officials had marked with tape to show availability.

But the large electronic monitor between the prosecution and defense tables was the most significant sign of the change that has come to the state’s court system because of the coronavirus.

Before day’s end, a key defense witness in the trial, forensic psychologist Chuck Denison, testified from Wyoming with the use of Skype video conference technology. That further set the stage for what Bogle said he believed will be the “first hybrid criminal trial in the state of New York” — one combining virtual testimony with live courtroom testimony.

On Tuesday, Doomchin is scheduled to participate in her trial by Skype without leaving Nassau’s jail. Court officials said that will be another first for the state's court system.

Prosecutors say Doomchin stabbed British tourist Denise Webster in the abdomen on Aug. 13, 2018, after the two ladies returned to the defendant's home with a mutual male friend to enjoy cake and piano music after a lunch out.

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The defense doesn't contest Doomchin's actions, but contends she is not responsible for second-degree murder by reason of mental disease or defect.

Webster, 61, was from Garswood in northwest England and had traveled to the United States for a three-week visit, only meeting Doomchin that very day, according to authorities.

Nassau police said at the time of the retired legal secretary's arrest that she had declared she "needed to rid the house of evil" before plunging a knife from her kitchen into the victim's body. Authorities said Doomchin later told police that she had made "a terrible mistake" but had felt Webster was "evil."

Prosecutor Martin Meaney said Monday in his opening statement that Doomchin's actions were intentional. "She knew what she was doing was wrong and she did it anyway," he added.

The prosecutor conceded he wasn't saying that Doomchin didn't suffer from mental illness, but said the facts of the case would show she wasn't insane at the time of the attack and was guilty of murder.

But defense attorney Robert Gottlieb countered that Doomchin was so seriously mentally ill that she didn't know what she was doing was wrong or appreciate the nature and consequences of her conduct.

Referencing the ongoing pandemic as a time of fear and illness, the Manhattan lawyer said the trial would involve confronting "another very frightening and inexplicable disease — serious mental illness, schizophrenia."

Doomchin, he said, was in the throes of a psychotic episode that compelled her to stab the victim because of her "delusional belief that Miss Webster … was Satan" and "Faye's mission was to rid the world of evil."

He compared the deadly violence to a nonfatal attack in 1999 in which Doomchin stabbed a different woman in a Great Neck real estate office. In that case, Doomchin ended up pleading not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect and getting years of state-mandated mental health treatment. 

Later Monday, Denison, the defense's witness, began testifying about an examination he did on Doomchin at Nassau's jail after her arrest. The testimony came after some technical difficulties related to the witness connecting to the Skype video conference program.

"Like I said when we started this morning, we're in a new era. And here we go," the judge said good-naturedly amid the temporary difficulties.

When the day's testimony was finished, with plans made to recall Denison to the virtual stand on Tuesday, Doomchin looked up at the screen and spoke.

"Thank you, doctor," she told the psychologist. "Sorry for the inconvenience."

The defendant also thanked the judge as court officers prepared to lead her out of the room.

"Faye," Gottlieb then told her, "We'll see you on Skype tomorrow."

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