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Hung jury in Wallington spurned lover assault trial

Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST : Jurors in Hackensack this afternoon returned not-guilty verdicts to lesser counts while finishing hung on charges that a self-styled Santeria priest broke into his former lover’s Wallington home and beat the man’s father nearly to death.

The jurors today found Julio Pina-Catena ( above, left ), of East Rutherford, not guilty of two counts of destroying evidence.

However, they said they couldn’t reach a decision on seven other counts, including attempted murder and burglary.

At the same, the jury cleared his roommate, Kenny Cabrera ( above, inset ), of evidence destruction.

Pina-Catena, 41, eased back in his chair and watched the jurors with little reaction when the verdict was delivered. He and his lawyer then shared a brief, quiet conversation.

Superior Court Judge James J. Guida (STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter)

Cabrera and his attorney went into the gallery to talk with supporters.

“I don’t have any feelings yet,” Cabrera told CLIFFVIEW PILOT in the courthouse hallway afterward. “I’m relieved it’s over, but my friend is still going through it.”

Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Danielle Grootenboer, after consulting with an official with the state Appellate Division, said her office was accepting the verdict but will seek a retrial on the deadlocked counts.

Pina-Catena was returned to the Bergen County Jail, where he has been held on $750,000 bail since his arrest on June 6, 2011.

Superior Court Judge James J. Guida rejected a request by Pina-Catena’s attorney, David Altieri, to reduce the amount.

“I don’t think it follows that a not-guilty finding on one charge” affects the others, the judge said. “No reduction in bail.”

Before the jurors returned, Pina-Catena told the judge that he would accept a partial verdict — and the certainty of a retrial that came with it.

Guida later ordered both sides to return to court Jan. 27 for a status update.

“Obviously the jury, who worked very hard on this case, had considerable doubt as to my client’s guilt,” Altieri told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “I will likely file for a bail reduction.

“It doesn’t make sense to keep bail at an unattainable level for a guy who was just tried and the result was a hung jury on seven counts.”

Grootenboer said she would oppose any reduction.

She respectfully declined comment to CLIFFVIEW PILOT afterward because the case hasn’t been resolved.

Grootenboer had accused Pina-Catena of washing his car clean of evidence that could have implicated him in the brutal beating of the victim on on May 4, 2011. She also accused Cabrera of tossing out a pair of sneakers that they said Pina-Catena wore.

The victim’s house was stained nearly everywhere with blood — including the living room, an entry hall and a soaked couch where he was found — but investigators didn’t turn up any DNA evidence matching Pina-Catena’s. Nor did anyone find the blunt object that the victim, then 57, was beaten with.

As a result, defense lawyers said, there was nothing directly linking either defendant to the crime.

Grootenboer said revenge over a failed romance more than six years ago prompted the Cuban-born Pina-Catena to break into the home, trash the place and attack his former lover’s father.

Altieri, in turn, said it wasn’t “a fair fight” that his client was waging against “all these assistant prosecutors and all the detectives.”

Defense lawyers also pointed to another boyfriend the victim’s son broke up with a little over two years ago — who, they said, sent him threatening emails. Although that man had an alibi — he was in New York City at work at the time of the attack — they said he had a “friend” who was a likely suspect.

Besides attempted murder, Pina-Catena was charged with various other crimes in connection with what authorities said was a vicious assault that left the victim with a fractured skull and eye socket and no memory of the incident.

The older man was hospitalized for 10 days, then had to spend several weeks in a rehabilitation facility where he slowly regained his health, Grootenboer said.

Besides the blood, the crime scene included a smashed TV screen, a photo of young girl at communion with its frame cracked and her eyes scratched out with a sharp instrument; another picture of the same girl older on which “U R Filthy Bitch” was carved, among other incidents of vandalism, she said.

A key piece of evidence was a Santa Barbara candle the victim’s son found lighted in the living room, Grootenboer said.

The victim’s son told jurors he broke up with Pina-Catena years earlier and moved on to another relationship, the prosecutor said. He said his former lover exacted revenge by creating a false “Man Hunt” online profile characterizing him as promiscuous.

Defense attorney Robert Galantucci, the lead attorney for Pina-Catena during the trial, countered that his client, first and foremost, was “presumed to be innocent.”

The seven women and five men on the jury began deliberating last Wednesday morning following the month-long trial. They continued Thursday and on Friday until 8:15 p.m., when they told Guida that they were “totally deadlocked.”

“It’s your duty to consult with each other, and to reach a decision, as long as you can do so without violence to yourself or others,” Guida told the jurors on Friday. “Don’t surrender your honest conviction solely for the purpose of reaching a verdict.”

STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

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