Assistant goes on trial in Linda Stein murder
NEW YORK (WABC) -- The confession was dramatic and videotaped. The weeping woman described to a prosecutor how she fatally bludgeoned her boss - punk-rock pioneer and celebrity real estate broker Linda Stein - with a piece of exercise equipment.
The suspect, Stein's personal assistant, said she snapped after Stein insulted and cursed at her and blew marijuana smoke in her face.
"'Leave me alone. Leave me alone!"' Natavia Lowery said she recalled thinking while clubbing Stein six times in the agent's Fifth Avenue apartment.
Lowery has since said her confession was false - a claim at the heart of the 2007 murder case as it heads for trial. Jury selection is expected to start as soon as Monday.
After losing a bid to keep Lowery's statements from being used at her trial, her lawyers want jurors to hear about the psychology surrounding false confessions, over prosecutors' objections. A judge hasn't yet ruled.
Stein, 62, was a fixture in the punk scene that centered on the gritty club CBGB in the 1970s, and co-managed the Ramones in their heyday. Her ex-husband, Seymour Stein, was the president of Sire Records, a launching pad for such artists as Madonna and the Talking Heads. Elton John is godfather to one of her daughters.
She later parlayed her rock roots into a high-flying career brokering apartments for Madonna, Sting, Billy Joel and other entertainers. Brassy and irrepressible, Stein told an interviewer in 2005 that "the rock 'n' roll business is mild compared to the real estate industry." And added, "I'm still rockin."'
She was found dead in her $3 million apartment on Oct. 30, 2007, the victim of a bloody beating that fractured her skull.
Stein's real estate firm hired Lowery in July of that year as her aide - a job that ranged from clerical work to doing Stein's hair and loading her marijuana pipe, Lowery later told authorities.
She had recently graduated from college with a business degree, and had founded a high-school student mentoring program at her church, defense lawyers have said.
Prosecutors say a heavily indebted Lowery used her access to Stein's bank account information to steal more than $30,000 through a series of forged checks and other tactics, using the money to pay student loans and other bills.
Lowery killed her boss when Stein realized the theft, then used the slain woman's ATM card to help herself to $800 minutes later, prosecutors said.
"Natavia Lowery is a thief and a cold-blooded killer who ended her victim's life to cover up the constant and deep violation of trust," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon wrote in court papers.
Lowery, now 28, told a different story in her disputed confession.
After initially saying she knew nothing about the killing - and then blaming it on a masked stranger who told her not to report it - Lowery painted a picture of a foul-mouthed, abusive boss who pushed her over the edge of self-control. She said her "mind went into shutdown mode" as she smashed Stein in the head and neck with a wooden stick used for stretching exercises.
Defense lawyers have noted that Lowery made those statements after being questioned through the night for more than 12 hours - without a lawyer, though police knew her family had hired one.
"In its pursuit of Natavia Lowery, the government conducted a lawless and illegal investigation," defense lawyer John Christie wrote in court papers.
Prosecutors say Lowery made it clear to police she didn't want the lawyer there. A judge agreed, ruling in April that her confession could be used as evidence.
Lowery's lawyers now hope to mute its impact with testimony on police interrogation tactics and the reasons people sometimes admit to crimes they didn't commit - if the judge allows the testimony.
Courts are split on whether false-confession psychology passes legal muster. Sometimes even judges in the same case disagree.
The judge who presided over the first two trials of a man accused of murdering a Long Island bet collector in 2004 barred a false-confession expert from testifying, but a different judge allowed it in a third trial. The defendant, Herve Jeannot, is awaiting a fourth trial after the previous proceedings ended in hung juries and an overturned conviction.
In the Lowery case, Ohio psychologist and lawyer Solomon Fulero has said he wouldn't address her confession directly if permitted to take the stand. But at a November hearing, he said he would counter "the myth that nobody would confess falsely to something that has real-life consequences unless they were young or stupid ... or crazy."
Prosecutors said in court documents that the body of knowledge about false confessions "is scientifically immature and unreliable."
If convicted, Lowery faces 25 years to life in prison.
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