2007-10-03 / Features

21-Year-Old Murder Case Finally Comes To Trial

BY SHARON UDASIN

Twenty-one years after a woman was brutally murdered in a burglary of her Sunnyside Gardens home, the Queens district attorney finally brought a suspect to trial.

But the prosecutors fear that their case may be crumbling.

During testimony, a leading prosecution witness said that the defendant threatened to harm his son if he testified and developed a case of amnesia. Anthony Parilla repeatedly said, "I don't remember."

On the evening of Nov. 22 1986, Clara Basa, 54, was gruesomely murdered when she arrived home and surprised an armed burglar, prosecutors said.

"I've never seen anything like what happened to this woman," said one of the prosecutors, Michael Vozzo of the Homicide Investigations Bureau.

Basa's autopsy revealed 22 stab wounds and six other incisions, Dr. Jason Graham, city medical examiner, testified. He also identified that a knife missing a handle was embedded in the right side of Basa's neck and another knife was embedded in her chest.

The murder took place in 1986, but Kevin Justus, 42, was charged with the murder in 2005. Only a week after the murder occurred in 1986, Justus was arrested for robbing an elderly woman, landing him a jail sentence that overlapped with his current arrest. His trial for Basa's murder began September 11 at State Supreme Court in Queens.

From the moment he walked into court, Justus smiled complacently, even as prosecutors and witnesses discussed the gory details of the murder. His chalk-colored skin blended with the lifeless tint of a gray thermal weave shirt. According to his lawyer, Russell Rothberg, Justus has never really held a job and has spent most of his adult life in prison. Maintaining a serene expression, Justus chatted continuously with Rothberg throughout the testimonies.

"I don't think that the people will be able to sustain a burden of proof of beyond reasonable doubt," Rothberg said.

In the current trial, Justus waived his right to a jury.

"My personal conviction is that he knows exactly how bad the crime scene looks and he believes if a jury saw these photos, they'd convict," Vozzo said.

Justus was indicted only after two people said that he had admitted his guilt to them.

But one of these two men, the amnesiac Anthony Parilla, may have hindered the prosecutor's success. Before court began yesterday, Vozzo discussed the previous day's session, in which Parilla claimed that he didn't remember Justus' admission.

"He's lying," Vozzo said before yesterday's trial. "He told me a few weeks ago he remembers everything."

After at least three slight variations of the same question, Vozzo was finally able to get Parilla to admit his fears on the witness stand yesterday.

"Have members of your family been threatened on behalf of Kevin Justus?"

"No."

"Are you aware of any threats with respect to you or your family if you testify against Kevin Justus?"

"Yeah."

Parilla then elaborated slightly on the nature of this threat.

"I was told that if I came here at all there would be problems with my son," he said. "It came through the grapevine."

Parilla then admitted that the threat had come by phone directly from a childhood friend named Richie in July. He and Richie had last seen each other on June 27, during his final narcotics use before getting clean, Parilla said.

This isn't the first time the defendant has threatened Parilla, according to the prosecution.

"The defendant threatened him and said, 'If you don't stop dating the girl I like, I'm gonna cut you the f- up, I'm gonna tie you up, I'm gonna torture you worse than I did the old lady- I'll take days with you'," Vozzo said before the trial.

During the trial, Parilla denied knowledge of this threat.

Without Parilla and the second key witness, prosecutors would have little evidence against the defendant.

When the murder occurred in 1986, DNA testing was unavailable, and the policy of serology labs was to test swabs for genetic markers, prosecutors said.

"The swab tested positive for genetic markers that are found in both the defendant and the victim," Vozzo said. "But they're also found in 60 percent of the population."

The evidence will never be tested, prosecutors confirmed.

"Someone destroyed it intentionally, even though it was marked investigatory, as part of a routine procedure of when they have to clean house," Vozzo said.

That evidence could just be the proof needed to seal the case, either way.

"You're a victim of circumstances also, not just of the crime. Twenty-one years is a long time, especially technically," said Louise Basa, the victim's younger sister. "I am angry that the evidence is not there where it should be."

Louise Basa, 64, now an archaeologist in Schenectady, was at work in Albany during her sister's murder. The day before, she had stopped by Clara Basa's home for what became her final visit.

"The was the last time I saw my sister," Louise said. "I waved to her on the porch."

Clara Basa was working as an executive secretary for a pharmaceutical company and was a devoted member of Queen of Angels Church in Long Island City.

"I would characterize her as very devoted to friends and people that she knew in the neighborhood

Yesterday, Louise Basa sat alone in the sparse Queens courtroom as prosecutors figuratively exhumed her older sister. Jotting notes down feverishly and helping attorneys dig up details, the veteran archaeologist hopes finally to uncover justice for her family.

"You want to dwell on the fact that this is going on, when you thought that this was so far gone, a forgotten issue," Louise said. "After the last two days, I feel better than I have ever felt. It's back out in the open; we have a story to tell. My sister deserves this kind of reassessment."

Sharon Udasin is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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