EXCLUSIVE: A trial grows more likely for a Cliffside Park man whose agreement to serve 27 years in prison for killing an 88-year old World War II veteran during a burglary was nullified by a judge who said the victim’s family deserves a harsher sentence.
Edwin Estrada, 22 ( above ), could face life in prison if convicted.
Defense attorney John Pieroni said this week that he still hoped to strike a plea agreement with prosecutors. However, 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 originally filed a “diminished capacity” petition for his client, who hit Vincent Leuzzi several times over the head with a pot during a July 2010 burglary at the Fairview home of the retired mason and bricklayer, who came to the U.S. from his native Italy in 1939.
Although Leuzzi initially survived the attack, he never recovered and died nine days later in Englewood Medical Center.
Pieroni said his client, 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 8.
Presiding Superior Court Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi voided the first deal that Pieroni and prosecutors came up with after members of Leuzzi’s family called for the death penalty.
Under the agreement, prosecutors said they would drop 10 other counts against Estrada in exchange for his pleading guilty guilty to aggravated manslaughter.
Estrada should “at the least be convicted of felony murder,” the judge said at the time.
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.
A second defendant in the case, Leuzzi’s grandson Andrew Arabella of Saddle Brook, has pleaded guilty for his role in the crime and is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 6.
A third man, Jeffrey Cabrera of Cliffside Park, was deemed to have little involvement other than trying to help Estrada elude authorities, and was entered into a pre-trial program that clears his record if he meets certain conditions.
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.
The charges were upgraded to murder after Leuzzi’s death. Estrada has remained held on $1 million bail in the Bergen County Jail since then.
STORY, PHOTOS by Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
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