You’re a 16-year-old boy with devilish good looks and a penchant for goofing off. Your YouTube handle is JSKCranks, and you like to film yourself making prank calls. In one call you’re a mean Russian messing with the pizza guy. (“Do you have my money for the marijuana and cocaine I sold you? Cause I’ll cut you, bitch!”) Perhaps you get bored with prank calls. So you decide to take your antics on the road, maybe score some cash in the process. You go on the “adult services” section of Craigslist, as you’ll later tell the police, and connect with “Smotherboy.” He’s a 47-year-old ABC radio journalist who’s willing to pay you $60 to come over and smother him an ambiguous sexual fetish that involves asphyxiation and … and then what?
At the man’s Carroll Gardens apartment, you’ll later claim, he gives you beer and a white substance that looks like coke.
Then, while bound in duct tape, you later say, Smotherboy pulls a knife. You grab it away and stab him some 50 times. Afterward, you search for money in Smotherboy’s pants, rifle through his lunchbox collection, and then wash yourself in the tub before putting on Smotherboy’s clothes and leaving. You take the G train back to Queens. But the conductor stops the subway when he sees your finger bleeding badly. You go to the hospital, are later arrested, charged with murder in the second degree, and now face a maximum sentence of 25 years to life.
You didn’t know New York law permits 16-year-olds to be tried as adults. But you think your chances of getting off are decent. Given the choice between feeling outraged over a brutal killing or disgusted by deviance, jurors might see the case in your lawyer’s terms: a child conscripted by a sexual predator to carry out ungodly acts.
And then the prosecutor walks in.
You were expecting someone mean or severe-looking. But she seems pretty nice: tall, blonde, athletic and lithe in that Icelandic way. The brown eyes, you notice, are slightly misty, and the head is cocked a little to one side as if empathy is hardwired into her brain. In the prosecutor’s demeanor there is something eminently trustworthy. She’s seven months pregnant and just beginning to show.
You look at your own lawyer, dressed in a loud pinstripe suit. What’s he thinking? Probably that in 36 homicide trials, this particular blonde has never had an acquittal.
Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi is the prosecutor in the high-profile murder trial of John Katehis, charged with killing George Weber, a freelance journalist for ABC News Radio. The trial began last week, with pretrial hearings and jury selection; opening statements are today.
“Only three kinds of prosecutors have her record,” says Ken Taub, who heads the homicide unit of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office where Nicolazzi works as a homicide bureau chief. “People who exaggerate their records, people who pick and choose their cases, and people like Anna-Sigga, who prepare everything and anticipate everything. Her style is totally professional, no phony flash or showmanship.”
In one respect, she’s the embodiment of an archetype used in crime dramas — the attractive trial lawyer who lives and breathes homicides. Her personal history includes an older cousin who was raped and murdered, though she says that didn’t influence her career choice.
“Anna-Sigga has no ego,” says Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney who taught Nicolazzi at Brooklyn Law School. “She comes across as a person you can believe in. And of course her looks don’t hurt, either.” Could she run for office? “Absolutely, as long as she doesn’t run against me. I don’t want to deal with her in a race.”
I first encountered Nicolazzi’s name in 2006 when I was a litigation associate reading about the trial of Troy Hendrix and Kayson Pearson, the men convicted in the bafflingly horrific torture, murder, and posthumous rape of Romona Moore, a 21-year-old student at Hunter College. The case brought new meaning to courtroom theatrics when, on the first day of trial, Hendrix and Pearson pulled out improvised knives, stabbed one of their own lawyers in the face, and then tried to snatch a court officer’s gun before their uprising was put down. When the trial resumed, the Times reported that Nicolazzi, having declined the judge’s offer to replace her, “sat alone at the prosecution table taking notes with an exaggerated overhand grip.”
“After that they called me ‘lobster-claw’ around the office,” says Nicolazzi, 40, who grew up on Long Island and has lived in Brooklyn since law school. “That episode stuck with me,” she continued. “Now I’m more concerned with where the court officers are and where the defendants are, especially certain defendants.”
Katehis, now 18, reportedly had a MySpace page advertising his interests in anarchy, sadomasochism, drinking, roof-hopping, hanging off trains, and “extreme” violence. In a pretrial hearing, Nicolazzi requested that Katehis remove his sneakers because they had satanic images drawn on them.
In court last Wednesday, the defense suffered an early setback when a Brooklyn judge ruled that a post-arrest, videotaped statement by Katehis — in which he tells authorities about meeting Weber on Craigslist, drinking beer and snorting cocaine that Weber had given him, and then stabbing him — could be presented to the jury. And according to sources familiar with the case, at least two aspects of Katehis’s story — that Weber posted the Craigslist ad; and that Weber gave Katehis cocaine, which Katehis claims caused him to react so violently — will be disputed at trial.
So if Katehis, rather than Weber, posted the ad, then who lured whom?
It doesn’t matter, says Jeff Schwartz, Katehis’s lawyer. “You can’t say anything was consensual because John was underage. He can’t consent. If John had been a 16-year-old girl he probably would never have even been arrested.” As for Katehis’s claim that Weber gave him beer and drugs, Schwartz says tests taken at the hospital showed alcohol present in Katehis’s blood but not cocaine.
If Katehis has anything on his side, it might be public opinion. Coincidentally, in September, Craigslist closed the “adult services” section of its site — worth a reported $45 million per year in revenue — when negative publicity reached critical mass. Some believe Craigslist must bear a degree of responsibility for criminality facilitated by its site.
For Nicolazzi it all comes down to presenting the facts as they are. “If you don’t try to sugarcoat what actually happened, then you can set the morals aside and focus on the crime,” she says. “The encounter was consensual. John Katehis made a decision to kill George Weber, and it was incredibly vicious. You may think Weber’s behavior was reprehensible, but he did nothing criminal. No sexual activity occurred. He didn’t deserve to die.”