Although the circumstances surrounding what happened to Leisa Pyatt of New Jersey and Maria La Pinta of New York are considerably different, both women were victims of domestic violence and of a court system that judged them without consideration of what that meant.
While Maria LaPinta spent 20 years in prison for having an active role in the intentional killing of her husband by helping her brother dispose of the body after he shot him, Leisa Pyatt has spent 12 years of a 40 year sentence in prison for the accidental death of her fiancé Kevin. Ms. LaPinta has recently been set free on an appeal presented by her attorney son, and has reunited with her family. Leisa's clemency appeal is now before the Governor of New Jersey and it is her last hope of freedom and reuniting with her family.
Fourteen years ago, while Kevin was beating Leisa in a drunken rage (because she would not give him the keys to the car, as he had lost his license in court for drunk driving that morning), he threatened to kill her and her 2-year-old son. She put a knife between them that she'd grabbed from the drawer he had just kicked open, and in the ensuing struggle, the knife penetrated his chest 3/4 of an inch. It was a very sharp fishing knife that would easily have penetrated his chest to the hilt had there been intentional injury. As it turned out, the wound was bizarre to begin with, and because it did not seem serious to the hospital staff, he was left waiting for over an hour before he was treated. Meanwhile he was bleeding internally and this, compounded by his high blood/alcohol levels aggravated the situation. When they finally did the surgery, they fixed the wrong artery first and Kevin died. The testimony attesting to this by expert medical witnesses was never heard by the jury, as the Judge did not allow it.
There were many problems with Leisa's trial that have not been properly addressed.
The police photos of the marks on her neck left when Kevin was trying to choke her during the struggle were never seen by the jury as they mysteriously disappeared, and the judge did not allow testimony from the matron at the jail, who had witnessed the choke marks and bruises.
The jury also never heard testimony from a group of people who had witnessed Leisa leaning backwards on the balcony of their apartment, with Kevin on top of her trying to get something from her hands (the keys) moments before she called police. The judge did not allow it.
Leisa's assigned attorney, Public Defender Bonnie Richmond, who had worked for months on the case had assured Leisa and her family that her case would result in an acquittal or, at the very worse, a manslaughter charge. Two weeks before the trial, Ms. Richmond was pulled from the case and when she applied to the courts to continue representing Leisa, she was told that if she continued to pursue this, she would be at risk of losing her job.
Kevin Young, the new attorney assigned to her case, had never tried a capital case, did not return Leisa's or her parents phone calls, and seemed preoccupied because he was getting married within a few weeks of the trial. He later admitted to committing several major errors in the trial – one of which was neglecting to offer her a plea bargain, he later admitted -- because he did not think she would accept it.
He also failed to adequately interview and prepare witnesses. A friend of the family who was very ill passed away prior to the trial, and Leisa's attorney failed to get his written statement attesting to that fact that he had witnessed Kevin beating Leisa many times. He also called as a witness a former girlfriend of Kevin's, who had moved out of state. When she arrived at the airport, she was met by Kevin's parents, stayed at their home and was interviewed by the prosecutor. Leisa's attorney never spoke with this witness and when she got on the stand she said she never should have left Kevin and that she still loved him. When asked about the calls to police when he had beaten her with a closet pole and she had signed a complaint, she claimed to have lied to the police.
There had also been erroneous testimony the jury heard, never challenged by Leisa's attorney -- from a woman who said that Leisa had lived in her apartment complex and got in a fight in the courtyard with a man who lived there with her. Leisa had never lived in that apartment complex, but when she and her parents tried to tell her attorney that this needed to be challenged, he said it was not important.
Some believe that the greatest damage done to Leisa was when the psychiatrist testified. Leisa's attorney did not speak to him prior to his taking the stand and, when asked about Leisa's psychological profile, he casually mentioned that Leisa had been a troubled teenager and had had two abortions in her youth. The jury, who had been grilled prior to selection on how they felt about domestic violence, had never been asked about how they felt about abortion – a highly emotionally charged issue. Yet, the trial never skipped a beat and very possibly many of the jury members and perhaps even the judge had developed a subconscious judgment about Leisa, based on their own impassioned belief systems.
Leisa has had 2 appeals before the same judge who presided at her trial. Both were turned down. Paul Bergrin, the attorney, who handled Leisa's most recent appeal said, "In my 25 years of practice, as a former prosecutor, US Attorney, Military Officer, Military Attorney, and Defense Lawyer, I have never seen a greater travesty of justice to any human being." next page >>