Hearing to continue in ‘Kensington Strangler’ case

Posted: August 14, 2012

The brutally graphic statements made to detectives by the man accused in the "Kensington Strangler" deaths of three women brought victims' relatives to tears Monday.

On Tuesday, Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart continues hearing evidence on a motion by the lawyer for Antonio Rodriguez to throw out the three statements because they were purportedly not voluntarily and knowingly given.

At issue are statements Rodriguez, 23, made beginning shortly after 7 p.m. Jan. 17, 2011, to homicide detectives after he was arrested in an abandoned house on North Mutter Street, just north of Westmoreland Street, in North Philadelphia.

Detective James Pitts testified that earlier that day, the Kensington Strangler police task force learned that DNA from the victims matched a sample belonging to Rodriguez in CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), a federal database of DNA samples taken from people who were arrested.

Pitts testified that he met Rodriguez at 7 p.m. in an interview room at homicide headquarters and told the suspect that DNA showed he had sexual intercourse with the strangler victims: Elaine Goldberg, 21; Nicole Piacentini, 35; and Casey Mahoney, 27.

Pitts said he orally gave Rodriguez his Miranda warnings about his right to remain silent and have a lawyer present. Pitts said Rodriguez willingly talked about the three women and identified photos of all three as prostitutes he met on the streets of Kensington.

Police said the victims had histories of using prostitution to pay for their drug habits.

Pitts testified that Rodriguez did not admit killing the women. Instead, he talked about having sex with them that he said involved choking to heighten the experience.

Rodriguez said Goldberg asked him to choke her during sex, according to Pitts. Rodriguez said he panicked when she went limp and fell to the ground.

But in a second statement, which Pitts read aloud in court, Rodriguez said he began choking Piacentini during sex even as she resisted and screamed for him to stop. He also said he repeatedly had intercourse with both victims after they were dead.

Defense attorney William L. Bowe, however, focused on why Pitts did not get Rodriguez to sign a waiver of his Fifth Amendment rights at 7 p.m., as the detective did at 10:20 p.m., when Pitts asked Rodriguez to repeat what he had said so it could be rendered in writing.

"Why didn't you get a signed form then?" Bowe asked. "Did you forget?"

"I didn't because I didn't," Pitts tersely replied.

After arguing the question for several minutes, Pitts acknowledged that he feared the formality of immediately signing a waiver would make Rodriguez decide not to talk: "I've been doing things this way for a while, and I didn't want to risk it all," he said.

Pitts, however, insisted that Rodriguez agreed to make the statements without coercion.

Rodriguez, a slight man with bushy black hair and a thin beard who answered some questions from the judge in a soft, almost inaudible voice, did not appear to react to the statements' details.

Minehart must decide whether Rodriguez's Fifth Amendment rights were violated by detectives. If the judge finds they were, he may bar the prosecution's use of the statements at trial.

After the suppression hearing ends, Assistant District Attorney Carlos Vega will begin presenting his case against Rodriguez.

Rodriguez agreed to be tried without a jury in a deal with the District Attorney's Office to avoid the possibility of a death penalty if he is found guilty.

Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

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