In 2010, a Suffolk County jury convicted Anthony Oddone of committing the first murder in Southampton Village since 1988. He’d killed Andrew Reister, a 40-year-old correction officer who was working a second job as a bouncer at a restaurant-slash-bar called Publick House. After Reister had asked Oddone to stop dancing on a table, Oddone put him in a headlock and Reister suffocated.
Oddone, who is now 30, claimed self-defense, and the exact length of time he maintained the choke hold became an issue at trial. The jury found Oddone guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to 17 years in prison, perhaps at least partially based on the evidence that he held the headlock for two-to-four minutes.
Last week, however, the state’s highest court ruled that the trial judge made a mistake by excluding possible evidence that suggested Oddone choked Reister for only a few seconds. In a unanimous decision filed on Thursday, the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered that Oddone receive a new trial.
The evidence in question is from the witness statement of a Megan Flynn, a waitress who testified for the defense. She initially told an insurance investigator that she saw Oddone choking Reister for “maybe six to 10 seconds.” On the stand, though, she testified, “I didn’t have a watch. I wasn’t keeping track of time. But it could have been a minute or so. I don’t know.”
Oddone’s attorney sought to show Flynn her initial statement and challenge recollection at trial, but Judge C. Randall Hinrichs didn’t allow it, explaining that Flynn had “given no indication she needs her memory refreshed.”
The Court of Appeals disagreed.
“It was simply unfair to let the jury hear the ‘a minute or so’ testimony — testimony damaging to the defense, from a defense witness’s own lips — while allowing the defense to make no use at all of an earlier, much more favorable, answer to the same question,” Judge Robert Smith wrote for the court. “The trial court suggested to defense counsel that this was ‘an effort to impeach your own witness,’ but counsel had not yet got to the point of impeachment; she only wanted to refresh the witness’s recollection.”
Flynn’s memory of the night was far from the only account presented at trial. She caught only the tail end of the altercation. According to witnesses, Oddone, a caddie at a high-end Long Island golf club called the Bridge, was out with co-workers when Reister asked him and his girlfriend to stop dancing on a table. When Oddone refused, Reister pushed him off and the men began fighting.
The Court of Appeals decision summarized what followed:
In short order, defendant got behind Reister and put his arms around his neck; one of defendant’s hands was grasping the other. After an interval, Reister fell to the floor and defendant fell on top of him, not releasing his grip, though Reister seemed to onlookers to be unconscious. Several people screamed at defendant to let Reister go, and some tried without success to pull defendant away. Finally, defendant let go and ran out of the bar, leaving Reister unconscious on the floor. Reister was declared brain dead two days later.
Smith acknowledged that Flynn was not a “central witness” and that “the decisive issue in the case is not the duration of the headlock, but whether defendant caused Reister’s death while intending to cause him serious physical injury.”
However, Smith notes, the prosecution emphasized the duration of the choke in its case, telling jurors in the closing argument that “Megan Flynn even told you, the defense’s own
witness, told you it was one to two minutes.” As a result, the defense should have had the opportunity to introduce evidence that conflicted with that aspect of Flynn’s testimony, the high court concluded.
“It may be that her original ‘6 to 10 seconds’ statement, if repeated on the stand, would have been of little consequence, for Flynn saw only the last part of what occurred,” Smith wrote. “But the testimony of a defense witness that that fragment of the event might have lasted as long as a minute gave significant support to the [prosecution].”