Convicted killer Anthony Oddone could get a new trial after the state’s highest court last week threw out his manslaughter conviction and 17-year prison sentence stemming from the death of a Hampton Bays man, Andrew Reister, during a Southampton Village bar fight in 2008.
The state Court of Appeals overturned a 2011 State Supreme Court Appellate Division ruling that had upheld the conviction. The new ruling grants a new trial because State Supreme Court Justice C. Randall Hinrichs, who presided over Mr. Oddone’s 2009 jury trial, refused to allow the defense in the case to provide information to a witness to “refresh her … recollection” about the duration of the incident with a statement given previously to investigators.
The witness, Megan Flynn, estimated at trial that the portion of the struggle she saw take place in the taproom of the Southampton Publick House to have lasted “a minute or so,” but had told investigators months earlier that she estimated the time to be less than 10 seconds. Judge Hinrichs would not allow defense attorney Sarita Kedia to remind Ms. Flynn of her earlier statements.
The court also criticized Judge Hinrichs’s decision not to allow Ms. Kedia to call to the stand a psychologist who would have offered testimony that witnesses to traumatic events typically overestimate the amount of time the event lasted when asked to recollect it.
On the basis of the missteps by the judge, the court undid the results of more than a year of preparation and legal wrangling, two-plus months of testimony from more than 50 witnesses, and one of the longest jury deliberations in Suffolk County criminal court history.
Mr. Oddone, now 32, was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter in December 2009. He was initially sentenced to 22 years in prison by Judge Hinrichs, just three shy of the maximum for such a charge. But in 2011 an appellate court—the same judges who upheld the conviction—ruled that Judge Hinrichs had been overly stern in his sentencing and reduced the overall time to 17 years. He has now served just over five years of that sentence, counting back to the time of his arrest in August 2008.
As of Wednesday, Mr. Oddone was still being held at Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison near Poughkeepsie. But with his conviction now vacated, he is expected to be transported back to Long Island sometime this week or next to begin the new court proceedings. Among the first things those proceedings will likely address, according to his lawyers, will be the possibility of being released on bail.
“In terms of a bail hearing, I would expect it will be relatively soon,” Ms. Kedia, Mr. Oddone’s defense attorney at the 2009 trial, said late last week. “I do expect that the case will be called … in the very near future. I would say, as a general matter, within a couple of weeks.”
Mr. Oddone was held without bail following his August 2008 arrest and throughout his trial, even after members of the Noyac golf club The Bridge, where he was a caddy, offered to post $1 million bond for him and take responsibility for his whereabouts. The same members are believed to have paid for his defense.
But the circumstances will be very different this time around, some local defense attorneys said this week. Mr. Oddone no longer faces murder charges and a life sentence—the first jury found him not guilty of second-degree murder. And with the reduced sentence—if convicted of first-degree manslaughter a second time, he could not receive a longer sentence than that imposed following his first conviction—Mr. Oddone would be facing a maximum sentence of slightly less than 12 more years in prison. That amount could potentially be reduced to nine years with good behavior.
“I think it is quite likely, yes, that he would be granted bail under those circumstances,” one attorney, who asked not to be named while commenting on an active case, said of the circumstances surrounding the newly revived proceedings. “The flight risk, as a judge would probably see it, is significantly diminished now. The D.A. will counter that in court, I’m sure, or ask that bail be set very high to, hopefully, put it out of reach of a defendant who doesn’t have a great deal of money.”
A representative of Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the case.
Attorneys interviewed this week also said that Mr. Oddone’s legal team will certainly be pressing the D.A.’s office for a plea deal to avoid the time and expense, for both sides, of a second trial. But, one hinted, the D.A.’s office may be getting counter-pressure from the Suffolk County Corrections Officers Association, the union that Mr. Reister, a guard at the Suffolk County Jail in Riverside and a Hampton Bays resident, was a representative of when he died.
Vito Dagnello, the president of the union, would not comment on the organization’s position, other than to say that its members will again make their presence and numbers known in any new court proceedings. Nearly every court appearance, from Mr. Oddone’s initial arraignment in August 2008 to his sentencing 19 months later, was attended by a large crowd of corrections officers, often in uniform.
“We will be filling the courtroom again,” Mr. Dagnello said. “It’s a tragedy that the family has to live through this all over again.”
Mr. Reister’s widow, Stacey, and other members of his family declined to comment on the case coming back to trial.
The incident occurred on August 8, 2008, after midnight on a crowded summer “Ladies Night” at the Publick House. Mr. Reister, 40, who worked part-time as a bouncer for the Publick House when he was off-duty, had asked Mr. Oddone to stop dancing on a table. When he refused, witnesses said, Mr. Reister pushed him off the table, and a scuffle ensued. Mr. Oddone leapt onto Mr. Reister’s back and wrapped an arm around his throat, his feet off the ground, choking him with his body weight. Witnesses said he continued with the choke hold until well after Mr. Reister had lost consciousness and collapsed face-first to the ground, despite numerous other patrons trying to pull him off and shouting for him to let go.
A Suffolk County medical examiner said Mr. Reister’s heart stopped because the choke hold put pressure on the carotid artery and triggered the brain to stop the beating of the heart. He died after being taken off life-support at Stony Brook University Hospital three days later.
At trial, the prosecution labored to demonstrate that the amount of time that Mr. Oddone held the choke hold on the unconscious bouncer would indicate that he must have known it could kill Mr. Reister, and that he must have made a conscious decision to do so. The defense tried to cast doubt on the length of time the struggle took place, arguing that, in a short struggle, Mr. Oddone could have thought he was just defending himself against a bigger man and should not have been expected to comprehend the extent of the damage he was doing.
The jury came to the conclusion that while he may not have been consciously trying to kill Mr. Reister, Mr. Oddone must have been aware and conscious of the fact that he was causing the man great physical harm.
But the ruling from the Court of Appeals last Thursday, December 12, focused not on the facts of the case but on procedural aspects of the trial. Ms. Flynn, who was a waitress at the Publick House, was called to testify by the defense and stated in court that the portion of the struggle between Mr. Oddone and Mr. Reister she witnessed “could have been a minute or so.” But months earlier she had told investigators for the Publick House’s insurance company that she estimated the time was “maybe six to 10 seconds.” When Ms. Kedia went to remind Ms. Flynn of her earlier testimony, the basis for her having been called to the stand, Judge Hinrichs declined to let her do so. This week’s ruling noted that “the trial court ruled that Ms. Flynn had ‘given no indication she needs her memory refreshed.’”
The seven-judge Court of Appeals said that was in error, because of the amount of time that had passed between the incident and the trial—more than a year—and the fact that she had qualified her testimony to say it “could have” lasted “a minute or so,” and added, “I don’t know.”
The judges acknowledged Ms. Flynn’s testimony would likely have been inconsequential in the case since she witnessed only a portion of the struggle. But they pointed out that the prosecuting attorney, Assistant District Attorney Denise Merrifield, recalled Ms. Flynn’s testimony—exaggerating it as “one to two minutes,” actually—in her closing statements.
The judges said that in light of Ms. Flynn’s testimony having lent such weight to the prosecution’s testimony warranted vacating the conviction.
The Court of Appeals judges noted that the duration of the clash between Mr. Oddone and Mr. Reister was a key component of the trial as prosecutors tried to saddle Mr. Oddone’s actions that night with the hint of intent. But the judges also seemed to question whether the elapsed time should have been made such an issue by the prosecution. In discussing whether Judge Hinrichs had erred in barring a psychologist from testifying about witness perception of time, the judges said that in light of the facts relayed by witnesses, the amount of time should have been inconsequential in proving Mr. Oddone’s guilt.
“It can be argued that it was not crucial for the jury to decide how many seconds or minutes defendant held Reister in a headlock,” the judges wrote. “The evidence that Reister fell unconscious, that defendant still maintained a grip on his neck and that onlookers screamed for the defendant to stop and tried to pull him away without result, would support a finding that, however long it was, it was far too long … The theory that the defendant’s purpose was only to defend himself might be rejected by a fact finder even in the absence of any evidence of duration.”
The appeal was argued to the court, which is in Albany, last month by attorney Marc Wolinsky, a well-known corporate lawyer and one of the members of The Bridge golf club who financed Mr. Oddone’s defense and had offered to post the $1 million bail. Mr. Wolinsky also argued the initial appeal to the Appellate Division that got the sentence reduced.
Last Thursday, Mr. Wolinsky said he was pleased that the court had seen fit to send the case back to the county courts, but expressed surprise at the reason the court settled on for vacating the conviction.
“We are extremely happy that the court recognized that Tony didn’t get a fair trial and we hope that on retrial he will get a fairer trial,” Mr. Wolinsky said from his office in Manhattan. “They reversed on the basis of the waitress. I was actually surprised.”