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Nov 18, 2009 12:30 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Testimony in Oddone case covers chokeholds

Nov 18, 2009 12:30 PM

A deputy Suffolk County medical examiner told the jury in the Anthony Oddone murder trial this week that if the defendant had released a chokehold after Andrew Reister collapsed to the ground, the 40-year-old Hampton Bays man probably would not have died.

Late last week, Dr. James Wilson, a 13-year veteran of the county medical examiner’s office, testified in a Riverhead courtroom that it would have taken between two and four minutes of choking for Mr. Oddone to kill Mr. Reister, an off-duty prison guard who was moonlighting as a bouncer at the Southampton Publick House, where the incident occurred in August 2008. He said Mr. Reister could have passed out from the chokehold placed on him from behind by Mr. Oddone after just 15 to 30 seconds, as several eyewitnesses have attested he did, but that he would have regained consciousness on his own, without long-term harm, had Mr. Oddone released his grip at that time.

Dr. Wilson explained that a person choked in a certain way passes out not from lack of oxygen, which would take much longer than 30 seconds, but from a mixed signal sent to the brain when pressure is applied to a specific part of the neck. Sensing the pressure and interpreting it to be a blood pressure problem, the brain simply tells the heart to stop beating, causing the person to fall unconscious. But once the pressure on the neck is released, the brain reverses the effect.

“If pressure is put on the right spot for 15 to 30 seconds, the person could pass out,” Dr. Wilson said during testimony on Thursday, November 12. He said he has heard the technique referred to as a “carotid sleeper hold,” and that the key to it is that pressure is exerted on the sides of the neck, not the front.

“After the person passed out, if someone released that pressure ... what would happen?” asked Assistant District Attorney Denise Merrifield.

“After another 10 to 15 seconds, the heart would start again and they would wake up,” Dr. Wilson answered.

But if the pressure on the neck—specifically, on the carotid sinus, a part of the larynx just behind and above a man’s “Adam’s apple”—were held for an extended period, the heart would not restart, possibly until after the brain had been deprived of oxygen long enough to cause permanent damage.

Last week, a Southampton Village Volunteer Ambulance chief testified that Mr. Reister had a very weak heartbeat when the ambulance crew arrived at the Publick House to treat him, and that the victim went into cardiac arrest while still on the floor of the bar.

Dr. Wilson originally was to be the prosecution’s last witness, but when he stepped down from the witness stand on Tuesday, Ms. Merrifield told the court she intended to call more witnesses after all. That afternoon, Southampton cardiologist Dr. Miguel Blanco took the stand. He testified that, before the incident, Mr. Reister had suffered from slightly elevated blood pressure but did not have a weak heart or any pressing medical concerns.

More than 25 witnesses have testified for the prosecution. The trial is expected to last until after the Thanksgiving holiday. When the prosecution finally rests, the defense case will begin immediately and could take another two weeks before the jury is left to consider whether it will convict Mr. Oddone of murdering Mr. Reister during the August 2008 bar fight.

Mr. Oddone, 26, has been accused of intentionally killing Mr. Reister after the bouncer, whose full-time job was as a Suffolk County Jail correction officer, ordered him to stop dancing on a table at the Publick House. He has been charged with second-degree murder and faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted. Because Mr. Reister worked at the Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead—at least a dozen of his co-workers have attended each day of testimony in the trial thus far—Mr. Oddone has been held at the New York City jail on Rikers Island for the 15 months since his arrest.

Ms. Merrifield’s case against Mr. Oddone has focused on the length of time the defendant held his victim in the chokehold after the other man had fallen unconscious. Her argument to the jury has been that, with Mr. Reister obviously unconscious and a crowd of people yelling at Mr. Oddone to stop choking the man—including warnings that he was killing him, and even physical attempts to get him to release the grip—Mr. Oddone must have made a conscious decision to kill, and should therefore be convicted of murder.

Several eyewitnesses have testified that initially Mr. Reister had struggled to pull Mr. Oddone’s arms off his throat but that he fell limp, his arms at his sides, after just a few seconds. When Mr. Reister, who was 6 feet 4 inches tall, collapsed to the ground, Mr. Oddone, who is 6 feet 1 inch tall, fell with him but maintained his hold on Mr. Reister’s neck.

During his autopsy on Mr. Reister, a Southampton native who lived in Hampton Bays, Dr. Wilson said he found that two small bones near his larynx had been broken by the force of Mr. Oddone’s forearm grip on his neck, but that the broken bones would not have compromised his airway. Only the continued pressure on the carotid sinus deprived Mr. Reister’s brain of the oxygen it needed, he said.

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