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The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has charged event planner Lauren Pazienza with first-degree manslaughter for fatally shoving 87-year-old Broadway singing coach Barbara Gustern, but they may be struggling to prove their case, according to several legal experts.
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“Clearly the facts are tragic and the government needs to do much more to protect the elderly,” said attorney Angelo Macaluso, who previously worked as a Suffolk County prosecutor. “However, a strict reading of the law shows that the criminal defendant was overburdened.”
Pazienza, 26, faces first-degree manslaughter and two counts of assault for allegedly calling the famous vocal coach a “b——” and then violently pushing her on March 10 on a street in Chelsea .
Gustern, who has worked with many celebrities including Debbie Harry of “Blondie”, hit his head on the sidewalk, suffered a severe brain injury and later died. Authorities said the two had never met and called the attack unprovoked.
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If convicted, Pazienza faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison and a maximum of 25.
Defense attorney Mark Bederow agreed with Macaluso and told Fox News Digital that while the allegations against Pazienza are deeply troubling, it might not be enough to justify the rap.
For the main charge to succeed, Bederow said prosecutors had to prove three things: Pazienza used a lot of force, she knew she was attacking an elderly and frail victim, and she intended to cause “physical injury serious”.
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“In the first degree manslaughter case, the issue is not the horrific outcome for the victim, that will be Pazienza’s intent,” said Bederow, who previously worked as a Manhattan district attorney. “A push, no more, even if it results in death, will almost never meet the ‘intent to cause serious bodily injury’ requirement.
Bederow said even second-degree manslaughter is heavyweight. Prosecutors would have to prove that Pazienza acted recklessly — and appreciated and ignored that his conduct could cause Gustern’s death.
“Emotions and outrage aside, you could very well be dealing with a low-level assault case,” he said.
Prosecutors routinely try cases known as one-punch deaths. For example, two men fight, one punches the other so hard that he hits his head against the pavement or some other object, and later dies of brain damage. Usually, these are charged with third-degree assault, with a maximum sentence of one year in prison.
Defense attorney Daniel Bibb, who worked for more than three decades as a Manhattan prosecutor, agreed that first-degree manslaughter was overblown. But, he said, he likely would have charged Pazienza with second-degree manslaughter — a nonviolent felony that carries no mandatory jail time — because of Gustern’s age.
“This is different [from a one-punch death case] because the victim is obviously frail, very old and has nothing to lean on,” he said. “The defendant would have known there would be at least one injury as a result.”
A friend of Gustern described her as a petite woman, weighing less than a hundred pounds and an inch shorter than five feet. Pazienza is 5-foot-8 and weighs 170 pounds, according to prison records.
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Pazienza, who has no criminal record, grew up in Port Jefferson, Long Island, an upscale suburb. The Fashion Institute of Technology graduate worked as a communications and events coordinator for French high-end furniture brand Roche Bobois, but quit in December, according to a company spokesperson.
After the alleged attack on Gustern, authorities said Pazienza deleted her social media accounts, including the website of her June marriage to Microsoft employee Naveen Pereira, and hid at her parents’ home before his arrest last week.
On Friday, Pazienza’s parents posted her million dollar bond and she was released from Rikers Island after spending three days locked up in the city’s infamous jail. Neighbors at the Astoria apartment where she lives with her fiancé told Fox News Digital that she was unstable, often fighting with other people in the building.
Hundreds of people attended Gustern’s funeral at the Church of the Holy Apostles on Saturday – located in the same block where she was attacked.
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Bibb added that prosecutors have a major advantage in their case against Pazienza. “This woman is not going to be sympathetic, and there is no juror who will like her,” he said. “Even if the evidence doesn’t prove the highest charge, they could still be convicted.”
Pazienza’s attorney, Arthur Aidala, declined to comment.