Goodbye and good luck Stephen Pittari

Today is the last day of work for longtime Legal Aid chief Stephen J. Pittari (left). He ends a 42-year career at the Westchester County Legal Aid Society — all but four of those years as chief attorney.

There are few people I meet in this line of work whom I would describe as delightful. Pittari is one of them. He not only is intelligent, but also has that rarest of human qualities — charisma — that has earned him the reputation as one of the most respected and admired lawyers in the state. The people who work for him are fiercely loyal and completely devoted, and even prosecutors give him kudos as a worthy adversary.

I wish him well in his future years. And if he ever writes that book, I’ll be sure to buy a copy.

Longtime director of Westchester Legal Aid to retire

Talk about an end of an era.

Attorney Steven J. Pittari, whose name has become synonymous with the Westchester Legal Aid Society, will retire after more than 20 years as its director.

Pittari, only the second director in the agency’s history, has been a Legal Aid lawyer for more than 40 years. Legal Aid represents indigent clients charged of felonies.

Pittari’s last day will be June 30. Legal Aid’s Deputy Chief Counsel, John F. Ryan, who recently had the challenge of representing double murderer Darrell Evans, will take Pittari’s place as executive director and chief counsel.

Judge denies arrow-shooting assault suspect to withdraw plea

A Peekskill man who was to be sentenced today for shooting a man in the neck with an arrow last year instead got some harsh words from Westchester County Judge James Hubert.

Lee S. Johnson, (left) who has been held at the Westchester County jail on $50,000 bail since his arrest, had asked the judge in writing on Dec. 17 to withdraw his guilty plea and be assigned a new lawyer.

Hubert told him that he needed a good legal reason to withdraw his plea, not just because he had “a mere change of heart.” Hubert suggested that Johnson, 54, had been listening to “jailhouse lawyers” who told him to fight the charges. Johnson had pleaded guilty to felony attempted assault, felony weapon possession and misdemeanor menacing charges.

“You told me under oath that you did this crime,” he said, reminding Johnson that he had also agreed to serve five years in prison for the crime.

Johnson tried to speak, but Hubert would not let him.

“I talk, you listen,” he said. “It’s important that you listen because you have a lot at stake.”

Hubert told Johnson that he was assigned a good lawyer and there was no reason that Westchester Legal Aid lawyer Anne Bianchi should be dismissed from the case. He also said that no one forced him to plead guilty on Nov. 16.

“We were about to start your trial. You pulled the trigger. You stopped the trial.”

Johnson was charged with shooting Wayne Inesta, a 40-year-old Peekskill resident, on March 10, when a group of friends gathered at Johnson’s home at 165 Smith St.

Police said Inesta and Johnson got into an argument that escalated to a physical fight in which Inesta beat up Johnson. As Inesta was leaving, polcie said, Johnson got a crossbow from somewhere in the house and shot at him. The arrow struck Inesta in the neck.

Neighbors heard the commotion and called police. A police officer found Inesta walking near 720 South St. He removed the arrow himself and collapsed after losing a large amount of blood.

Daughter-slay plea postponed

There has yet to be a plea deal offered to Stacey Pagli (left), who, according to her lawyer, plans to admit in court that she strangled her teenage daughter last year at Manhattanville College.

Pagli appeared briefly in Westchester County court today. She is due to return Feb. 1, but her lawyer and prosecutor will meet for a conference on Jan. 25.

Allan Focarile of the Westchester Legal Aid Society said he is waiting for the District Attorney’s office to make an offer in exchange for a guilty plea. Pagli, 38, is charged with second-degree murder, punishable by 25 years to life in prison. Assistant District Attorney Timothy Ward is the prosecutor.

Focarile  said he hoes the DA’s office realizes how extremely depressed and emotionally disturbed his client was when 18-year-old Marissa Pagli was strangled on Feb. 22 in the family’s on-campus apartment in Purchase. He said there will likely be a decision on the direction of the case — but not a guilty plea — on Feb. 1.

“I think there will be a resolution that will be satisfactory to everyone involved,” he said.

Authorities say Pagli, 38, returned home after dropping off her 3-year-old daughter, Gianna, at day care Feb. 22 and began arguing with Marissa, a Manhattanville freshman. She strangled her daughter, authorities said, then tried killing herself first by cutting her wrist and then by hanging herself with a belt on a doorknob. In court papers, Pagli told police that she strangled her daughter because she was disrespectful and rude. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” she told police. “She pushed my last button.”

According to the statements, she then used a belt to try to strangle herself but failed, as she did in an attempt to slash her wrist. She said she had left a note for her husband. She tried to kill herself again by tying socks around her neck in jail.

Her estranged husband, John Pagli, a college maintenance supervisor, found his daughter’s body and his unconscious wife in their second-floor apartment in an apparent suicide attempt. He was in the courtroom gallery today, as he has been for nearly every one of his wife’s appearances, and was accompanied by a private lawyer.

Acting state Supreme Court Justice Richard Molea is presiding over the case.

Defense completes psych tests for Pagli

The defense team has given prosecutors medical records and psychological reports for Stacey Pagli, who appeared in Westchester County Court this morning on a charge of killing her teenage daughter six months ago at Manhattanville College.

Her estranged husband, John Pagli, was also in court. After exchanging a brief glance with his handcuffed wife, he fought back tears during her brief court appearance and dashed out of the courtroom as soon as she was returned to the courthouse’s holding cell.

Stacey Pagli is facing a second-degree murder charge in the slaying of Marissa Pagli in the family’s on-campus apartment in Purchase. Her attorney, Allan Focarile of the Westchester Legal Aid Society, said he plans to use a psychiatric defense.

Assistant District Attorney Timothy Ward said Dr. Angela Hegarty, a psychological expert who has testified for prosecutors in other murder cases, would review the records and reports before interviewing Stacey Pagli herself.

Acting state Supreme Court Justice Albert Lorenzo ordered both sides to return to court Sept. 15.

If a jury believes that Pagli, 38, suffered an emotional disturbance due to severe depression or some other cause when she killed her daughter, she could be convicted of manslaughter and serve less time in prison.

After initially refusing, John Pagli met with two psychiatric experts about his wife’s mental state before Marissa was choked to death Feb. 22.

Authorities say Pagli returned home after dropping off her 3-year-old daughter, Gianna, at day care on Feb. 22 and almost immediately began arguing with Marissa, an 18-year-old Manhattanville freshman. She strangled her daughter, authorities said, then tried killing herself by first cutting her left wrist and then by hanging herself with a belt on a doorknob.

John Pagli, a college maintenance supervisor, returned home shortly after noon to find his daughter’s body and his wife unconscious in their second-floor apartment.

In court papers, Pagli told police that she strangled Marissa because her daughter was disrespectful and rude. “I couldn’t take it any more,” she told police. “She pushed my last button.”

According to the statements, she then used a belt to try to strangle herself but failed, as she did in an attempt to slash her wrist. She said she had left a note for her husband. After her arrest, she tried to kill herself again by tying socks around her neck in jail.

Elderly wife-killing suspect appears in court

For the first time in months, Paul Weinstein appeared in Westchester County Court on charges that he fatally shot his sickly wife last year.

Weinstein, a 78-year-old pharmacist, shuffled into the courtroom using a walker with wheels.  He had missed his last few court appearances due to medical problems. He has been incarcerated since his arrest on Sept. 23 — the day his wife was shot.

The diminutive Weinstein sat in a chair as his court-appointed lawyer, Allan Focarile of the Legal Aid Society, and prosecutor Christine O’Connor had a bench conference with acting state Supreme Court Justice Richard Molea.  Weinstein is due back in court on June 10, at which time the case will be assigned a trial judge or be resolved with a plea bargain.

According to court papers, Weinstein told police that an argument with his wife “set him off” and that he shot her dead in their New Rochelle home after he failed to suffocate her with a pillow.

He used a World War II-era Walther handgun to shoot his wife as she lay in bed in their 12th-floor apartment at a senior citizen housing complex at 35 Maple Ave. He then called 911 to report what had happened and, after a brief standoff with police, surrendered.

Weinstein insisted his wife’s slaying was a mercy killing.

No bail reduction for you

While the last two weeks in August are typically slow at the Westchester County Courthouse, Judge Barbara Zambelli’s courtroom was busy this morning with a long parade of defendants and defense lawyers — one of whom got a sharp rebuke from the bench.

Legal Aid attorney Allan Focarile argued for a bail reduction for one of his clients, who is being held on $50,000. He called the high bail “a ransom.”

One problem: the bail was set by Westchester County Judge Jeffrey A. Cohen, meaning Zambelli, another county judge, couldn’t overrule him.

“I’m not his Appellate judge, sir,” Zambelli said. “I go by the law. I don’t know what governs your behavior.”

Needless to say, the defendant was sent back to the county jail with the same bail amount.