YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: How new charges of plotting to kill a co-defendant will affect the scheduled June trial of a Cliffside Park man for killing an 88-year-old World War II veteran from Fairview remained an open question following a brief court appearance today.
Edwin Estrada, 23, was brought into court in Hackensack to formally be presented with an attempted murder count this afternoon.
“Do you understand the charges?” Superior Court Judge Edward A. Jerejian asked him.
Estrada stared at the judge, shrugged and replied: “I guess.”
Cellphone records are among the evidence that authorities said they have in charging Estrada with conspiring to kill Andrew Abella, the grandson of the victim, Vincent Leuzzi
Abella, of Saddle Brook, took a plea deal from prosecutors and was expected to testify against him.
A jailhouse snitch alerted authorities to the alleged murder plot, Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said last week. Estrada “was attempting to contact individuals outside the jail in an effort to enlist their assistance to murder Abella,” Molinelli said, adding that items were seized from his cell.
As a result, Estrada’s bail was doubled to $2 million.
Five months ago, a judge who said the victim’s family deserves a harsher sentence nullified a deal that Estrada made with prosecutors to to serve 27 years in prison for killing Leuzzi while burglarizing his apartment.
And while defense attorney John Pieroni said he’d still hoped to reach a plea agreement with prosecutors, First Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor John Higgins told CLIFFVIEW PILOT there would be “no deal” and that he’s ready to try the case.
Pieroni is pursuing a “diminished capacity” argument for his client — meaning he didn’t have the ability to form an intent to kill Leuzzi when he bashed him over the head with a cooking pot during the July 2010 break-in.
Leuzzi, a retired mason and bricklayer, who came to the U.S. from his native Italy in 1939, initially survived the attack. He never fully recovered, however, and died nine days later in Englewood Medical Center.
Pieroni said Estrada, who was 18 at the time, comes from an abusive family, suffers from bi-polar and anti-social disorders, and first attempted suicide when he was eight.
Presiding Superior Court Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi voided the deal that Pieroni and prosecutors came up with after members of Leuzzi’s family called for the death penalty.
Under the deal, prosecutors agreed to drop 10 other counts against Estrada in exchange for his pleading guilty to aggravated manslaughter.
However, the judge said Estrada should “at the least be convicted of felony murder.”
Pieroni, in turn, asked DeAvila-Silebi to recuse herself. She denied the motion without a hearing.
The death penalty in New Jersey was abolished by then-Gov. Jon Corzine in 2007. The last person executed in the state was Ralph Hudson — 50 years ago.
If Estrada is convicted and is sentenced to less than life in prison, he would have to serve 85% of his sentence before he is eligible for parole. Under the plea agreement that was nullifed, that would have been 23 years.
Estrada was arrested in New York City and originally charged in Hackensack with attempted murder and armed robbery. He made things easy for investigators by using Leuzzi’s credit card to buy clothing in Washington Heights, in a transaction captured on surveillance video, authorities said.
The charges were upgraded to murder after Leuzzi’s death.
STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
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