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Did drug-addicted burglar intend to kill Fairview WWII veteran?

Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: The fate of a Cliffside Park man who killed a World War II veteran from Fairview during a burglary could be determined by whether jurors think intended to murder his victim.

Edwin Estrada was not quite 18 when he broke into 88-year old Vincent Leuzzi’s house on Jersey Avenue in July, 2010 to steal money for himself and Leuzzi’s grandson. Both were drug addicts hoping to support their habits.

Leuzzi died of his injuries exactly four years ago, as First Assistant Prosecutor John Higgins noted during closing arguments today.

The proceeding drew several law enforcement officials, including his boss, Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli.

Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli, First Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor John Higgins (STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter)

“To form intent, you do not have to plan it in advance,” Higgins told the jury. “When he brought that pot down on the back of his skull, he intended to kill him.”

Defense attorney John Pieroni argued that Estrada didn’t have the mental capacity to form intent.

His client suffers from bipolar disorder, comes from a disadvantaged background, and exhibits the behavior of someone under a great deal of stress, Pieroni told jurors.

He’d been on the streets, homeless, for weeks and was strung out and hungry, the lawyer said.

Taking it a step further, Pieroni said Estrada was there only because of Leuzzi’s grandson, Andrew Abella.

Both men had broken into the home two months earlier, he noted. That night, Abella sent Estrada in through a second-floor bathroom window “because he was too overweight to get in,” Pieroni said.

Estrada went through the house, found nothing, and came out to tell Abella there was nothing to steal, the lawyer said.

“Andrew Abella didn’t believe my client,” Pieroni said. “He went into the house himself and searched it, looking for money.”

“If Andrew Abella could go into the house again in May, who’s to say he didn’t do it again in July?” Pieroni asked. “Estrada remembers hitting Leuzzi in the head three or four times.

“Is it possible Abella went back into the house again, to find something to steal? And that he found his grandfather disabled and finished the job?” the lawyer asked. “I don’t think that’s so preposterous.”

Higgins, in turn, cited the attack “extensive and particularly brutal” and Leuzzi “as vulnerable as anyone you will ever see.”

“He’s 88 years old, he’s hard of hearing, he sleeps soundly. He was 5’ 3” tall.”

Abella, who testified during the six-week trial, appears headed to probation for his role in the crime, Higgins noted.

“Does Andrew Abella bear responsibility for what happened?” he asked jurors. “Yes, but not in the same way as Edwin Estrada.”

Estrada originally pleaded guilty in March 2013 in exchange for a 27-year prison term. But a judge nixed the deal and set a trial date after family members called the penalty too lenient.

Jurors are now considering several charges against Estrada, including:

  • aggravated assault resulting in the death of Leuzzi;
  • causing his death while engaged in burglary and flight;
  • inflicting bodily injury on him during a theft while armed with a deadly weapon;
  • causing his death of Leuzzi during a robbery;
  • assault with a deadly weapon while burglarizing Leuzzi’s house.

A third co-defendant was peripherally involved and admitted to the Pre-Trial Intervention more than a year ago.

TOP: Defense attorney John Pieroni addresses jurors
BOTTOM: First Assistant Prosecutor John Higgins
(STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter)

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