The woman accused of pushing an 87-year-old New York City voice coach to her death may have helped the prosecutors in her case by fleeing and deleting her social media and wedding website accounts, legal experts say.
“Anytime a suspect flees you can expect that prosecutors may try to introduce that as what’s called ‘consciousness of guilt,'” said Danny Cevallos, an NBC and MSNBC legal analyst.
“The moment that she found out that this was a news story” and that the push resulted in death, she could have turned herself in, Cevallos said. “But she didn’t.”
Lauren Pazienza, 26, was charged Tuesday with manslaughter in the first degree and assault in the first degree after allegedly shoving Barbara Maier Gustern in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan on March 10.
A witness told police that Pazienza cursed at and shoved Gustern “for no apparent reason,” according to prosecutors, and Gustern hit her head on the pavement.
Gustern died days later of blunt force trauma to the head, according to a medical examiner with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner.
Cevallos said Pazienza could possible face greater charges, like second-degree murder, which includes “the death of another person under the conditions that showed that you had a depraved indifference for human life,” according to New York Penal law.
“It could be the case that prosecutors charged her with manslaughter just to have a reason to bring her in,” he said. “They may, upon further review of their evidence, which may include video, decide that more serious charges are warranted.”
But the defense would likely argue that “this particular shove was not something that created a depraved indifference for human life,” Cevallos said. “Sometimes a shove can be just a shove.”
Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Justin McNabney said that after the shove, Pazienza walked away from the scene briskly, leaving Gustern on the ground, bleeding profusely from her head.
But then she stayed in the area. McNabney said she got into a physical altercation with her fiancé minutes after the attack, and then waited nearby long enough to see the ambulance come for Gustern.
Pazienza and her fiancé were next seen north of Chelsea, at Penn Station, where they got on the Subway to Astoria, Queens, McNabney said.
Holed up in her Shore Towers Condominium, Pazienza went about deleting every one of her social media profiles, including her LinkedIn and Zola, a site for engaged couples to post their registries and wedding details.
Pazienza and her fiancé were scheduled to be married in June, McNabney’s office said.
The day after Gustern died, as more media attention was brought to the case, Pazienza fled to her parents house on Long Island, McNabney said. She then stopped using her cellphone and eventually hid it at her aunt’s house.
Those who helped Pazienza flee and hide could possibly be charged with hindering prosecution under New York State law, Cevallos said.
A tipster eventually recognized widely distributed surveillance pictures of Pazienza and alerted authorities, McNabney said.
New York City Police Department detectives arrived at Pazienza’s parents’ house in Suffolk County on Monday. Her father said Pazienza was not home, according to McNabney. Her lawyer arranged for her to turn herself in on Tuesday.
Brad Bailey, a former state prosecutor in New York City and Massachusetts who also worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston, said Pazienza’s parents could face legal jeopardy if they knowingly shielded her from authorities.
“Harboring a known suspect certainly could result in accessorial liability charges — accessory after the fact, which is a felony in New York,” Bailey said. “There could be exposure there.”
Bailey also said if Pazienza faces a trial, prosecutors could request that a judge determine if a jury should hear a “consciousness of guilt” argument. That argument could factor into with whether prosecutors proved charges against her, Bailey said.
Arguments can be made on both sides of the legal aisle about Pazienza’s guilt or innocence when considering her online presence was deleted, he said.
“The defense would argue vociferously that people purge, scrub, clean, delete contents of personal devices all the time,” Bailey said. “The prosecution would say, ‘Under these circumstances, we have evidence that it was commenced with her allegedly going into hiding.'”
Prosecutors requested that Pazienza be held without bail, but Judge Michael Gaffey set bail at $500,000 cash or $1 million insurance company bond. Pazienza is due in court on Friday.
Pazienza’s attorney, Arthur Aidala, said in a statement Tuesday that his team was “pleased that the Court granted bail to Ms. Pazienza and we expect her to be released in the coming days.”
Aidala said his client has no criminal history. The Queens District Attorney’s Office and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said Pazienza had no record in their districts. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We anxiously await the production of the discovery material by the District Attorney’s Office. The Pazienza family joins the rest of the City in grieving the loss of Barbara Gustern,” Aidala added.
Gustern died March 15. AJ Gustern, her grandson, who said she suffered traumatic brain damage, told NBC New York that “she was a force of nature” and a “tiny ball of energy building community everywhere she went.”
“To whoever did do this, I’m still praying for you, and the karmic wave that you’ve taken on is incredible,” he told the station. “So God help you.”
Gustern was fondly regarded in New York’s theater community. She coached the cast of the 2019 Broadway revival of the musical “Oklahoma!,” The New York Times reported. She also once coached rock singer Debbie Harry of the group Blondie.