Retrial of 1996 Riverhead killing begins in Suffolk court

06/11/2012 8:34 PM |

Janet Albertson, a Suffolk County assistant district attorney, pounded her fist on the courtroom podium during her opening statement as she described how Curtisha Morning, a Riverhead High School student, was killed more than a decade ago.

Ms. Albertson accused the defendant seated a few feet away, Kalila Taylor, of murdering the victim in a jealous rage.

“She unleashed stab after stab after stab after stab,” Ms. Albertson said. The victim suffered more than 90 stab wounds, she added.

“The evidence in this particular case can and does and will … and always will continuously point beyond a reasonable doubt to the killer, Kalila Taylor,” she said.

The retrial of the 35-year-old Riverhead native Ms. Taylor, a former Riverhead High School student who wore a black and white patterned shirt and cornrows in her hair as she sat in court, began Monday morning at Suffolk County court. Ms. Taylor stands trial for the 1996 murder of Ms. Morning, who was found dead in the woods behind the high school parking lot.

Ms. Taylor was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

But the State appellate court overturned the conviction in 2004 because the case’s judge, Arthur Pitts, incorrectly instructed the jury to treat the prosecution’s DNA evidence used in the trial as direct evidence instead of circumstantial evidence.

Ms. Taylor’s defense attorney, John LoTurco, said in his opening statement that the prosecution’s case was purely circumstantial, their evidence and witnesses are unreliable, and warned the jury not to assume Ms. Taylor was the killer.

“This case, folks, is about the presumption of guilt,” he said. “From the very beginning Kalila was presumed guilty.”

“This poor girl deserves justice too,” he said, pointing to his client.

Now in the retrial, Ms. Albertson said the prosecution will use that same DNA evidence to prove Ms. Taylor was the murderer. She said in her opening statement that Ms. Taylor’s blood was found on clothing near the crime scene and on Ms. Morning’s jeans, claiming that Ms. Taylor suffered a cut on her hand when she killed the victim.

The prosecution claimed that Ms. Taylor killed Ms. Morning because the defendant’s boyfriend — who was also the father of her child — had taken a romantic interest in Ms. Morning, a homecoming queen at the school.

That jealousy drove her to follow Ms. Morning as she cut through the woods behind the school on the way to class and kill her, Ms. Albertson said.

The prosecution said they will call two witnesses who said they saw someone who looked like Ms. Taylor arguing with the victim just before she was murdered, and will prove that a necklace found at the murder scene belonged to Ms. Taylor.

But Mr. LoTurco said the prosecution will be unable to prove conclusively that Ms. Taylor is the killer due to “sloppy and incompetent, at times,” police work.

“Don’t merely accept as Gospel the prosecutor’s opening statement,” he told the jury. “They can point fingers all they want, but they have to prove [Ms. Taylor's guilt] and prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Ms. Morning’s body was found nearly a month after she was killed, which Mr. LoTurco said points to faulty police work. He also attacked the integrity of the DNA evidence, claiming that it will prove to be contaminated.

But Ms. Albertson said the evidence that originally lead to Ms. Taylor’s first conviction will still prove she was the murderer.

“It will not be justice denied,” she said. “It will be justice delayed.”

The retrial was originally ordered nearly a decade ago, but County Court Judge Ralph Gazzillo ruled that Ms. Taylor was not mentally fit to stand trial, based on letters sent to the judge which he, at the time, called “bizarre, baseless and delusional.”

In 2010, Ms. Taylor was found to be fit to stand trial, following medical treatment at the Mid-Hudson Correctional Facility.

Both Ms. Taylor’s and Ms. Morning’s families attended the trial Monday morning and sat on opposite sides of the courtroom.

Ititah Williams, Ms. Taylor’s cousin, said the two families used to be good friends, but the two trials have torn them apart.

“We used to be close,” Ms. Williams said. “We’d have barbecues, everything. Both families are hurting right now.”

Ms. Morning’s family declined to comment on the trial.

The prosecution began the trial by calling detectives who worked the crime scene to the stand to describe how the scene was processed. The retrial will continue over the next few weeks.

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, family statements were missing from an earlier version of this story.

psquire@timesreview.com