The Manhattan district attorney’s office has charged event planner Lauren Pazienza with first-degree manslaughter for the fatal shoving of 87-year-old Broadway singing coach Barbara Gustern — but they may have a tough time proving their case, according to several legal experts.
"Obviously the facts are tragic and the government needs to do much more to protect the elderly," said attorney Angelo Macaluso, who formerly worked as a Suffolk County prosecutor. "However, a strict reading of the law shows that the criminal defendant was overcharged."
Pazienza, 26, faces first-degree manslaughter and two counts of assault for allegedly calling the famed voice coach a "b——" then violently pushing her March 10 on a Chelsea street.
Gustern, who has worked with numerous celebrities including Debbie Harry of "Blondie," smacked her head on the pavement, suffered a serious brain injury and later died. Authorities said the two had never met and called the attack unprovoked.
If convicted, Pazienza faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison and a maximum of 25.
Defense lawyer Mark Bederow agreed with Macaluso and told Fox News Digital that although the allegations against Pazienza are deeply disturbing, that may not be enough to warrant the rap.
For the top charge to stick, Bederow said that prosecutors must prove three elements: Pazienza used a great deal of force, she knew that she was attacking an elderly, frail victim and she intended to cause "serious physical injury."
"In a first-degree manslaughter case, the issue isn’t the horrible result to the victim, it will be Pazienza’s intent," said Bederow, who formerly worked as a Manhattan prosecutor. "A shove, without more, even if it results in death, almost never will meet the ‘intent to cause serious injury’ requirement."
Bederow said that even second-degree manslaughter is a heavy lift. Prosecutors would have to prove that Pazienza acted recklessly — and appreciated and disregarded that her conduct could cause Gustern’s death.
"Emotions and outrage aside, you may very well be looking at a low level assault case," he said.
Prosecutors routinely try cases known as so called one-punch deaths. For example, two men get into a fight, one slugs the other so hard he hits head on the pavement, or another object, and later dies from a brain injury. Usually, these are charged as third-degree assaults, with a maximum punishment of one year in jail.
Defense attorney Daniel Bibb, who worked for more than three decades as a Manhattan prosecutor, agreed that first-degree manslaughter is a stretch. But, he said, he probably would have charged Pazienza with second-degree manslaughter — a non-violent felony that carries no mandatory jail time — because of Gustern’s age.
"This is different [from a one-punch death case] because the victim is obviously frail, very old and has nothing to brace herself on," he said. "The defendant would have known there would be at least some injury that would result."
A friend of Gustern’s described her as a petite woman, weighing under one hundred pounds and an inch shy of five feet. Pazienza stands 5 feet 8 inches tall and clocks in at 170 pounds, according to jail records.
Pazienza, who has no criminal record, was raised in Port Jefferson, Long Island, an upscale suburb. The Fashion Institute of Technology graduate worked as the communications and events coordinator for high-end French furniture brand Roche Bobois but resigned in December, according to a company spokesperson.
After the alleged attack on Gustern, authorities said that Pazienza deleted her social media accounts, including the website for her June wedding to Microsoft staffer Naveen Pereira, and hid out at her parents’ house before her arrest last week.
On Friday, Pazienza’s parents posted her $1 million bond, and she was sprung from Rikers Island after spending three days locked up at the infamous city jail. Neighbors at the Astoria apartment where she lives with her fiancé told Fox News Digital that she was unstable, often getting into fights with others in the building.
Hundreds attended a funeral for Gustern at the Church of the Holy Apostles on Saturday – located on the same block where she was attacked.
Bibb added that prosecutors have a major advantage in their case against Pazienza. "This woman is not going to be sympathetic, and there is no juror that will like her," he said. "Even if the evidence doesn’t prove the higher charge, they might still get a conviction."
Pazienza’s attorney, Arthur Aidala, declined to comment.