The False Conviction of the District Attorney Turned Reality Star
Just after Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi parlayed her success as a Brooklyn ADA into a new career as a true-crime TV host, an appeals court reversed one of her signature murder convictions.
A few months ago, John Giuca, a Brooklyn man who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 2005, sent me a letter asking that I write about the prosecutor who sent him to prison.
“Please try to drop one last bomb on these bastards for me, man. I’m trying to be strong, but with every denial I get I lose more hope. Every day I have to wake up to a fucked up world and battle suicidal thoughts. It’s made me hate life, man. It’s worn me down.”
Over 12 years, Giuca’s many appeals in state and federal courts had all been shot down. His prosecutor, Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, a one-time star homicide prosecutor in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, parlayed the victory against Giuca into a gig with the Discovery Channel hosting a true-crime documentary series, True Conviction, that debuted earlier this year and features Nicolazzi as she “travels the country to interview prosecuting attorneys about the most difficult homicide cases they ever faced.” The show says it “reveals the real-life stories of how homicides are solved on the street and won in the courtroom.”
The evidence in People v. Giuca suggests that she abused her immense powers, maliciously and knowingly, to advance her career. She prospered, Giuca rotted in a cell.
Until now. On Wednesday, a state appellate court in Brooklyn, reviewing Nicolazzi’s case against him, unanimously reversed the conviction and sent it back to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which may or may not opt to pursue a second prosecution. Today, Giuca — still incarcerated pending a hearing next week — is no longer a convicted murderer, and is technically a free man.
I don’t think the Brooklyn DA will come after Giuca again, given the facts of the case. On the night of October 12, 2003, Giuca allegedly ordered the murder of a Fairfield University student named Mark Fisher, who attended a party at Giuca’s house in Brooklyn. The party was packed with kids getting drunk. Fisher ended up a few blocks away, shot dead.
The New York tabloids, morbid, opportunistic, glommed onto the story at a time when crime in the city was plummeting. They hounded the Brooklyn DA’s office to find the culprit. Giuca said at the time that he was railroaded, had nothing to do with Fisher’s death, that he was a convenient suspect in a politicized case. Nonetheless, he was convicted of having dispatched a friend of his, Antonio “Tony” Russo, to kill Mark Fisher in what was said to be a gang initiation. They were friends, this much was true. And Russo apparently did kill Fisher. He is in prison for life. But there was no forensic evidence, no gun, no eyewitness evidence tying Giuca to the crime.
Nicolazzi took on the assignment and demonstrated the aplomb that later gave her 35 straight murder convictions over 21 years of service. She worked in the one of the rottenest prosecutorial administrations in modern Brooklyn history. Under District Attorney Charles Hynes, who was voted out of office in 2013, prosecutors routinely fabricated and suppressed evidence, threatened witnesses, coerced false testimony, hid evidence from the defense, lied to judges, and swayed juries with false and inflammatory statements.
Nicolazzi, who left the office last year for a full-time tv career, received her training and rose to prominence in that noxious culture. She was Hynes’ student at Brooklyn Law School. After the Giuca conviction, her highest-profile victory yet, Hynes gave her a $43,000 bonus.
The facts of Nicolazzi’s wrongdoing were clear to the appellate court that reversed the conviction.
That rare decision centered on evidence that Nicolazzi lied to the jury in support of false testimony implicating Giuca. One of the key witnesses against him was John Avitto, a drug addict with repeated arrests for burglary and theft to support his habit. Avitto in his testimony claimed that when he was in jail he heard Giuca confessing to involvement in the murder of Mark Fisher. Avitto recanted in 2013, saying he’d heard no such thing. He said he made his statements only because Nicolazzi offered him a deal for his various drug crimes. Nicolazzi claimed in court there was no quid pro quo for Avitto’s testimony, no leniency extended to him.
The evidence unearthed by Giuca’s lawyer, Mark Bederow, shows that there was in fact a deal with Avitto, that Nicolazzi attended his court dates for drug crimes to plead leniency, and that someone privy to the case falsified documents showing Avitto’s successful participation in a drug rehabilitation program. The reality was that Avitto had absconded from that program repeatedly.
The point for Nicolazzi was to present Avitto to the jury as an unassailable witness. She made every effort to hide that Avitto was a recidivist addict who couldn’t be trusted.
To reiterate: Avitto came forward to confess that he lied in court. And the lies he told were because he felt he had a deal for help with his own charges in exchange for those lies. And someone made sure that his rehab notes backed up the lies.
Two other witnesses against Giuca have also recanted. These witnesses, like Avitto, had nothing to gain by coming forward. They state in affidavits that what bothered them most was a bad conscience, the shame they felt for having lied.
One of those witnesses is a woman named Lauren McCullough, née Calciano, who was Giuca’s girlfriend at the time of the Fisher murder. In it she states she is married, has a young daughter, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is employed at a financial firm in Manhattan, and “felt compelled to come forward and set the record straight.”
For the record, she states:
- that she repeatedly told investigators she “did not have any information regarding John’s alleged involvement in the crime”,
- that Nicolazzi threatened her with jail, obstruction, and perjury if she didn’t produce testimony regarding Giuca’s involvement,
- that she was “terrified” about “the well-being of my father, my family and myself” when Nicolazzi threatened to “make this hard” on her father, Salvatore Calciano, who was in jail at the time.
“More than any other factor, this threat” — the threat to her family — “influenced me to testify in the manner that they desired.”
Existential threats: The result was a young woman who collapsed under pressure to keep herself out of trouble.
Of the four witnesses who testified against Giuca, only one has not recanted. That’s Albert Cleary, a friend who was present during the party at Giuca’s house on the night of the Fisher killing. His testimony was key to securing Giuca’s conviction. Cleary testified that Giuca ordered Antonio Russo “to show Mark Fisher what’s up.” Cleary said that Giuca had given Russo a gun. According to Lauren McCullough’s affidavit, Cleary’s testimony was all lies. If the Brooklyn DA decides to re-try the case, Cleary may be the only witness remaining to support the case against Guica.
What’s clear is that Giuca deserves a new trial, the fair trial for which he’s been waiting 13 years. He may now get one, or he may be spared that indignity and let free.
Meanwhile, viewers of the Discovery Channel can enjoy watching Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi, whose perfect record looks like something less now.