September 24, 2002
Defense Begins in Trial of
Landlord Accused of Murder
By Joshua Kors
Brooklyn, NY Lawyers for a landlord accused of setting his own building on fire in July of 2000, killing a young girl who was sleeping inside, began their defense yesterday, cross-examining a doctor who added credence to a key defense claim.
Antonio Casanova, 49, is charged with dousing the top floor of his Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone with a flammable liquid and sparking a fire that ripped through the five-story walk-up on July 22, 2000 . The fire killed Ashley Sims, 13, and severely injured 17 others.
Casanova is charged with second-degree murder in Sims' death, as well as reckless endangerment and several counts of first- and second-degree arson. The Dominican immigrant claims he had nothing to do with the blaze. If convicted of Sims' murder, he faces 25 years to life in prison.
Attorney David M. Schwartz began the defense's case by trying to counter a damaging prosecution witness who saw burns on Casanova just one day after the fire. The defense contends that Casanova was burned several days after the fire, in an unrelated car accident in his native Dominican Republic.
To bolster this claim, Schwartz called a Dominican surgeon with intimate knowledge of his hospital's patient records. Through an interpreter, Dr. Pablo Frias testified that the records show Casanova being treated for burns three times in July of 2000, beginning July 20, two days before the fire.
During cross-examination, District Attorney Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi asked Frias to consider whether the entries for Casanova looked “smushed in.” The prosecution asserts the entries are actually forgeries penned after the fire by Casanova. The landlord worked as a medical intern at Frias' hospital at the time of the blaze.
Yesterday was the second time that Frias and Nicolazzi had had this exchange. The doctor testified in Casanova's first murder trial, which concluded in February with a six-to-six hung jury. During their previous exchange, the doctor admitted that the records book is often left unattended, on top of an administrative desk, where Casanova could have had access to it. Yesterday, when Frias insisted the records are always returned to a desk drawer, Nicolazzi read him his old testimony, pointing out the contradiction.
Frias became visibly frustrated. “A desk has drawers!” he blurted. The exclamation drew surprised laughter from one jury member. The defendant remained expressionless.
“I think he has no remorse,” said Carolyn Lee, aunt of the deceased Sims. “You have to understand, I'm angry. And they're cold-hearted people him and his whole family.”
Lee and a clutch of relatives stayed through all of yesterday's proceedings, as they have every day through both of Casanova's trials. On the aunt's right sat Sims' mother, who watched the day's motions with a leaden sadness while clutching a locket engraved with her daughter's image.
At the time of her death, Sims was attending a slumber party thrown by her best friend, Kendra Carter, 15. According to the Daily News, Carter brought jurors to tears earlier this month when she testified how she dragged both Ashley and her dog out onto the window ledge to escape the flame-filled apartment.
“I had my dog under my arm and I had Ashley,” Carter testified. “I had her by the hand and I was telling her to go underneath the window. That's when she fell to the floor.”
“She didn't get up,” Carter said.
Casanova's building had no fire escapes and no functioning sprinkler system, safety violations for which he had been cited several times. Each time Casanova failed to make the appropriate corrections.
“As the owner of the building, he knew the sprinkler system didn't work, that the valve in the basement was turned off,” said District Attorney Kyle Reeves, who is trying Casanova for the second time. “There were no fire escapes, and the building was fully occupied. Someone as intelligent as Mr. Casanova should have seen the consequences of his actions.”
Firefighters arrived as residents were jumping from windows and hanging from ledges. Their efforts brought many of the brownstone's children to safety. But Sims had suffered terminal smoke inhalation and was burned on 90 percent of her body.
Defense counselor Schwartz said he would make one more attempt to find Casanova's elusive father and introduce him as the defense's second and last witness. If the father remains out of contact, Schwartz said, the defense will rest today after a single day of testimony.
The prosecution has been presenting its case since Sept. 6.
Update: Casanova's trial concluded on October 5, 2002. On the charge of second degree murder, the Brooklyn jury found Casanova not guilty.