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Closing Arguments Finish In Oddone Trial; Case Now In The Hands Of The Jury

Originally Posted: December 03, 2009

Aaron Boyd

Interested individuals lined up to wait for the doors to the criminal court building in Riverhead to open up at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, December 1. More than 60 people filled the court room on a first-come, first-serve basis; many were turned away. Photos by Aaron Boyd and Kelly Carroll; Photos of the victim and accused courtesy of Suffolk County

Southampton - The seven week trial of Anthony Oddone, accused of the alleged murder of Andrew Reister on August 7, 2008, heard closing arguments this week, leaving a jury of 12 to decide the fate of the 26-year-old from Farmingville.

As he entered the courtroom on Tuesday, December 1, Oddone scarcely resembled his mug shot. His hair, though still cropped short, was thicker and darker, grown out around the sides and back. He looked younger than he did a year ago. Oddone followed the action as it happened before him, occasionally sifting through notes he had taken throughout the trial, though his expression never changed. He sat like a war history buff watching footage he had never seen before - intrigued, focused and intense.

Anthony Oddone, 26, is almost unrecognizable compared with his mug shot from a year ago.

In the early morning hours of August 7, 2008, Oddone was involved in an altercation with Reister, who at the time was moonlighting as a bouncer at the Southampton Publick House. By accounts, around 1 a.m. Oddone, along with a number of others, was dancing on tables in the taproom when Reister approached to tell them to get down. Girls who were dancing on the tables that night testified in court to complying with Reister's demands, however when Reister issued similar demands of Oddone, he refused. Accounts differ slightly from there as to whether Reister pushed Oddone off the table or pulled at him, but it is clear that Reister attempted to forcibly remove Oddone, who fell off the table and onto a bench.

A fight ensued, the result of which left Reister lying unconscious on the floor with Oddone's arm tightly around his neck, before he quickly fled in a taxi headed to a friend's nearby home. The cab he left in was identified by a 9-1-1 caller and stopped by a Southampton Village Police officer before it reached its destination.

Reister was taken to Southampton Hospital where his condition was stabilized, though he remained unconscious. Reister was transported to Stony Brook Hospital and two days later he was declared brain dead and disconnected from life support.

At his arraignment, Oddone was charged with felony assault; the charges were upgraded to murder in the second degree, a Class A Felony, by the time of trial. Over a year later, on October 19, the trial commenced with the prosecution led by assistant Suffolk County District Attorney (ADA) Denise Merrifield. Oddone is being represented by Manhattan defense attorney Sarita Kedia. In the seventh week, the two parties gave their closing arguments, the summations of the cases they pled before the court.

The Defense: A Tragic Accident
After a brief diversion in the morning (a juror's residency came into question, however both parties agreed that there was no issue) Kedia opened up the summation portion of the trial on Tuesday afternoon, December 1. The defense's closing went into the evening, lasting over five hours.

Kedia framed the defense around a conspiracy to exact revenge against someone who attacked and killed one of their own. She set Oddone up as, if not a victim, at least a hapless everyman thrust into a nightmarish situation when in a tragic, intoxicated accident he took the life of a member of the Blue Wall.

Reister was not a sworn-in member of the police force, though his position as a corrections officer actively working in the prison system certainly placed him on the side of Law and Order. This was evident immediately, as throngs of uniformed officers marched in honor at Reister's funeral and stood in union at Oddone's arraignment.

Law enforcement officers from across Suffolk County came out en masse for Reister's funeral.

"It is a tragedy when anyone dies and it is especially tragic when someone dies too young. It's devastating," the defense began, "But ladies and gentlemen, a tragic death does not equal a crime." Rather than a senseless killing, Kedia described it as "a bar fight gone badly," and asserted that, were Reister the defendant in such a case, no charges would have been brought. "He [Oddone] was only defending himself, trying to restrain his attacker who had thrown him off the table he was dancing on."

The defense argued that the restraining hold that Oddone used against Reister was a carotid sleeper hold, meant to pacify the victim rather than choke him. Kedia added the use of the word 'chokehold' to the list of the prosecution's deceptions. "You heard choker, choke, chokehold. Choke, choke, CHOKE!" she asserted, claiming that the witnesses to the incident who testified in court had been fed the word choke by the prosecution. "I'm not suggesting that they [the witnesses] are intentionally lying, I'm suggesting that their memories are tweaked, altered," she stated, in their minds the night had been "re-created after having spoken with each other, after having read news accounts of what happened and saw it on TV and spent hours and hours with detectives."

Kedia explained the range of charges that the jury will be asked to consider. The prosecution is seeking a conviction on charges of murder in the second degree, however the jury is also asked to consider lesser charges of manslaughter in the first or second degree and criminally negligent homicide. Manslaughter in the first degree describes a death that resulted from intent to seriously injure the victim, despite the fact that death was not the ultimate goal. Manslaughter in the second degree is when a person recklessly causes the death of another, though in this case the intent to seriously harm the victim would be decreased. Finally, the jury is asked to consider criminally negligent homicide, a lesser charge that denotes fault, but not intent. "The worst thing that that is is negligent," the defense said of the incident, "Mr. Oddone was clearly overcharged. How can you charge somebody for murder for something like this?"

Andrew Reister, 40 at his time of death, was declared brain dead 48 hours after the incident at Southampton Publick House, where he was working as a bouncer.

As the two men grappled on the floor in what the defense was calling a bar fight, the commotion surrounding the scene, including other bar patrons attempting to pull Oddone off of Reister, and Oddone's own intoxication level led to the restraint hold lasting far too long, for some time after Reister had lost consciousness. "Even if you believe that Tony [Oddone] continued to hold Mr. Reister in a headlock for a minute or two minutes at a time, the worst thing he did was fail to perceive that risk," Kedia stated, "The worst thing that Tony did was not realize that it was other people punching and kicking him. Even if you found that a reasonable person would have perceived it, you have to find that the prosecutor proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not merely defending himself. He had no desire to hurt anyone," she asserted, "He was only reacting in fear, in self-defense."

"It is not this young man's job to prove that his actions were justified," Kedia explained of why her client did not testify during the trial, "It's their job to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that his actions were not justified. You can't draw an unfavorable inference from the defendant not testifying," she informed the jury.

The jury was also asked to consider the justifications for Oddone's actions. "There are two justifications: the use of physical force and the use of deadly physical force," the defense explained, "He didn't pull a knife or a gun, he didn't intend to use deadly physical force," she argued, claiming that Reister's own physical condition turned a justifiable amount of physical force into a deadly attack. Reister suffered from an enlarged heart, an irregular beat and had a history of passing out after getting home from work and once while driving. The defense used this history to explain how a carotid sleeper hold, concentrated on the carotid artery that brings blood to the brain, held for even a moment too long could result in death.

The jury remained stone-faced and alert throughout the summation, though a few of the female jurors sitting in the front row were visibly moved hearing the story of Reister's death they'd heard retold so many times over the last month and a half.

"Death has to be a foreseeable consequence of the actions," the defense concluded as the hour hand reached for 7 p.m., "It was inadvertent, it was unintentional, it was not foreseeable."

The Prosecution: We Submit To You
"We represent the people of Suffolk County," ADA Merrifield opened the next morning, attempting to bat down accusations of a law enforcement conspiracy, "We do not represent the victim, the police department or the Southampton Publick House."

Merrifield's prosecution reframed Oddone as an enraged, relentless attacker who then calmly and methodically tried to escape from his actions. When Oddone finally released his hold on Reister, who laid limp facedown on the floor, he immediately fled in a taxi. "He told the cab driver to 'drive fast,'" Merrifield recounted from the driver's testimony, and when the arresting officer pulled the cab over, "He told the driver, 'Don't say anything.'" At this Oddone rolled his eyebrows and briefly looked away from the jury, the most notable reaction from the defendant throughout the two days of closing. "He changed his whole demeanor and his whole tune when the officer approached the car," the ADA said, stating how Oddone had feigned ignorance of any incident when questioned by the officer, "Plan A hadn't worked - I didn't get to escape - Plan B didn't work - playing dumb - so he immediately said, 'self defense.' If this was truly self-defense, why wasn't the defendant telling the cab driver, 'Hey, take me to the police station.' He wasn't looking for the police, he was looking to get away and he got caught."

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota speaking at Oddone's arraignment last year with Assistant District Attorney Denise Merrifield, who led the prosecution, standing to his right.

"He was panicked, he was in fear - who testified to that? No one," Merrifield asserted, as Oddone had not taken the stand himself, "You cannot speculate, you cannot imagine," she coached the jury, "Evidence has to come from this trial, from the witness stand, not from this podium," where the defense had given her closing arguments the day before.

"This choke was held for three minutes, which is corroborated by the song," the prosecution explained, referencing a six-minute song that was playing at the time of the incident and the DJ's testimony constructing a timeline of the fight with the progression of the music, "We're putting it in context with corroborating evidence, not just eyewitness testimony." The prosecution worked hard to re-establish the credibility of the witnesses that the defense had tried to tear down, reminding the jury of what they looked like and the overall picture presented by their combined testimonies.

"We submit deadly physical force was used," Merrifield argued, "He held the victim to the point that he broke bones in the victim's neck, caused his face to turn purple and caused petikia eye," bumps on the skin around the eyes caused by asphyxiation. "If a reasonable person was pushed off a table while you were dancing, is it reasonable to think that, 'I have to attack this man'? Would that be your first reaction if you were shoved off a table?" she posed to the jury, "Especially in a bar."

Merrifield again re-created the events of that evening. According to witness testimony, Oddone was dancing on a table in the center of the room with a few girls. When Reister came through the room and began asking the patrons to climb down, most acquiesced, however Oddone allegedly yelled, "F--- you," and continued to dance. Reister then pushed Oddone from the table and he landed on a bench behind. At this point, Oddone abruptly got up and punched Reister in the mouth. "This is consistent with the blood in Mr. Reister's mouth," Merrifield explained, adding that it was likely Reister subsequently defending his face that allowed Oddone to get him in the hold, otherwise "you would protect your neck, everyone knows that's a vital organ."

As Reister grasped his face, Oddone, who is a few inches shorter, got up on the bench and put Reister into the hold from behind. After a brief struggle, Reister lost consciousness and fell to the floor. "When you took that man from a standing choke to the point where he's unconscious, that's when it becomes murder," Merrifield charged, "He's rendered this man incapable and yet he's still choking him. He [Reister] is completely immobile and incapacitated and yet he [Oddone] continued. Why? Because he was mad," she asserted.

Merrifield attempted to reverse the roles that the defense had set up in her summation. "Mr. Reister is the one wondering what's happening, he's the one who's not sure what is going on."

Reister's widow, Stacey Reister speaking at Oddone's arraignment. She and family members, including her mother, watched the entire trial of the man accused of murdering her husband.

The prosecution estimates that the two men spent between 15 and 30 seconds in this standing hold before "the victim's arms go down to his side, he goes limp and stops struggling." Merrifield quoted a witness who said Reister looked like a tree falling. "He [Oddone] felt him go limp. You're on his back, you're going to feel that," Merrifield argued, "You feel that struggle stop, and down he [Reister] goes and he [Oddone] goes with him."

As Reister and Oddone hit the ground, "Many witnesses testified that he readjusted his hold," Merrifield said, shifting and strengthening his position. "He's [Reister] down, he's out, and he [pointing to Oddone] readjusts. That's intent ladies and gentlemen. He's consciously aware, he's just not done yet, that's what's going on," as other patrons are attacking Oddone, trying to loosen his grip, and screaming out, "you're killing him."

At this point, Merrifield played the 9-1-1 tapes again for the jury, whereupon Reister's widow, Stacey, who had been sitting with family members throughout the trial, broke down and wept hearing the sounds of confusion and angst from the night her husband was taken from their family.

The prosecution places the full duration of the hold "consistently in the neighborhood of two to three minutes," Merrifield stated, "Any person on this earth would know that they were killing him. We submit it is not criminal negligence - he could perceive the risk - This is not carelessness on the defendant's part. This is not reckless; he chose to keep choking him after he was unconscious on the ground, he chose to readjust the hold."

Merrifield dispelled the defense's accusations that Reister's heart condition was to blame. "Mr. Reister's heart came back, Mr. Reister died from brain damage," the ADA explained, as medics were able to get Reister's heart beating again, however the prolonged lack of oxygen to the brain resulted in severe brain damage. "The heart didn't die, the cause of death in this case was brain death."

"It's not any less a murder because there are pre-existing health conditions," Merrifield continued, "Terminally ill or perfectly healthy, you take the victim as you get them."

As the prosecution wrapped up their case, Merrifield again reiterated the brutality of Reister's death. "It's not as though it's one quick stab or a slip of the trigger," she said, turning Kedia's claim that lack of a weapon negated intent, "It's his bare hands, he killed him with his bare hands. It's brutal. Brutal and that's what he did," she exclaimed, pointing at the defendant. "The defense begged and pleaded not to convict," Merrifield concluded, "The time for begging and pleading was August 7, 2008, that was the time to listen to begging and pleading."

The judge counseled the jury on the proper procedures of deliberation and dismissed several requests from the defense for a mistrial. The jurors have much to take in and discuss, and a ruling could be long off. If Oddone is convicted, Andrew Reister's death will be the first murder in Southampton Village in over 20 years.

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