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As she left the courtroom where a jury acquitted the man accused of killing her son, Joanne Zaccaria didn’t know what she found more stunning: the verdict or the comedy of errors that led up to it.
“It was a circus and I should have stayed home,” she explained. “They made a mockery of our judicial system and now there is nothing I can do as far as getting some justice for my son.”
During each day of the six−week trial, Joanne sat in the gallery listening to the people’s case against Aristotle Plagianakos, the 19−year−old Bergen Beach resident charged with manslaughter for ramming his Jet Ski into her son Paul’s, sending the 16−year−old into the waters off Mill Basin.
Paul, who also lived in Bergen Beach, never surfaced after the 2007 tragedy. His remains were ultimately found a month later.
During testimony, Joanne left court from time to time to spare herself some of the more gruesome details – such as how the force of the impact severed an aorta in Paul’s heart, killing him.
Yet she was present to witness what she alleged was an untold litany of shenanigans in the courtroom.
Besides the headline−grabbing moment when a juror was discharged after complaining that Assistant District Attorney Kyle Reeves was “rude,” “narcissistic” and took too long cross−examining witnesses, Zaccaria alleges that a juror brought a newspaper into their waiting area – which was against Judge Deborah Dowling’s instructions.
She also alleged that someone on the defense’s side was recording portions of the trial, which was also not allowed.
At one point, a second juror asked to be discharged, she said. Sometime later, a man was ejected from the courtroom because he was allegedly intimidating a key witness while on the stand, Zaccaria recalled.
“[Judge Dowling] noticed that he was harassing the witness and asked him not to come back to court,” she said.
Later that day, Plagianakos was seen in the bathroom with the same witness, which Zaccaria saw as a breach of court protocol, she alleges.
“There was a complete lack of security,” she said. “I think the prosecution put their heart and soul into the case, but they needed eyes in the back of their head to see what was going on.”
Officials from the Kings County District Attorney’s office did not dispute her claims.
“We were aware of these incidents which were not within our control and we believe Judge Dowling handled them promptly and correctly,” said Jerry Schmetterer, spokesperson for District Attorney Charles Hynes.
As friends and neighbors honored Zaccaria during a yearly tribute last weekend, Joanne described her son as “adventurous, but not reckless.”
A sports aficionado and third−degree black belt about to be named Eagle Scout, Zaccaria would “never put anyone else’s life in danger,” his mother said.
“He actually saved somebody’s life that day,” Joanne said, recalling testimony that Paul was on his way home when he decided to ride up to a fellow Jet Skier, a young woman named Samantha.
He told her to be careful on the water because so many other Jet Skiers were tearing up Mill Basin.
That’s when Plagianakos allegedly rammed into her son’s Jet Ski, knocking him into the water.
Her description of her son diverged far from the doped−up Jet Skiing menace who inadvertently took his own life, as described by defense attorney Joseph Tacopina.
During the trial, Tacopina alleged that some marijuana was found stashed in Zaccaria’s Jet Ski. The defense attorney, himself a former Brooklyn prosecutor, inferred that the 16−year−old may have been under the influence of marijuana at the time of the accident.
Zaccaria was also not wearing a life vest −− a factor that could have led to his demise, he alleged.
Joanna said that the chief medical examiner testifying at the trial said there was no evidence that her son was high at the time of his death. The drugs that were found could have been planted, she claims.
Tacopina said that he was not blaming the victim but merely outlining the facts.
“[Zaccaria] didn’t have the right of way and wasn’t wearing a life jacket,” Tacopina said. “I do not apologize for bringing that stuff up because it was relevant to the case.”
“We had a just verdict,” said Tacopina. “This was a tragic accident, never a crime. The jury had to work their way through a lot of emotional undertones, but they ultimately decided the case on the facts.”
In a recent interview with the New York Post, Plagianakos said that he was glad he has woken up from this three−year nightmare.
“It’s been three years of my life. I’m very happy that it’s over,” Plagianakos said, who continues to refute allegations that he left the scene after the accident.
Just before impact, Plagianakos recalled that Zaccaria “came out of nowhere.”
“His head was turned the other way. I stood up fast and screamed his name,” Plagianakos recounted referring Zaccaria as “his friend.”
©2009 Community Newspaper Group
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