In Kayak Death Case, Jury Will See Police Interrogation Video
GOSHEN, N.Y. — The judge in the case of a woman accused of killing her fiancé during a kayak outing will allow jurors to watch virtually all of an 11-hour police interrogation video in which the defendant, Angelika Graswald, makes a series of incriminating statements.
Ms. Graswald has been awaiting trial here in the Orange County jail for 19 months. Since the summer, County Court Judge Robert H. Freehill has postponed several pretrial conferences. But on Friday, he scheduled the start of jury selection for Feb. 14.
The decision was a blow to the defense since Ms. Graswald’s lawyer had vigorously sought to keep the police interrogation and other statements out of evidence. Neither side is allowed to discuss the case.
Ms. Graswald was charged with second-degree murder in April 2015, nearly two weeks after her fiancé, Vincent Viafore, 46, drowned when his kayak capsized. The couple, who shared an apartment in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., had gone kayaking together on the Hudson River, paddling in the cold, choppy water to Bannerman Island.
Prosecutors say Ms. Graswald, 36, a native of Latvia, intentionally caused the kayak of Mr. Viafore, who was not wearing a life jacket, to overturn. They say she was unhappy in the relationship and stood to gain $250,000 in life insurance from two polices that listed her as the beneficiary.
Along with allowing jurors to see the interrogation, Judge Freehill ruled that the district attorney’s office could tell them about statements Ms. Graswald made the day before her arrest, when she spoke to police investigators on Bannerman Island. She had gone there to lay a wreath.
According to prosecutors, she told one of the investigators during a walk that she had removed the drain plug from Mr. Viafore’s kayak, as well as a ring from his paddle.
During the lengthy interrogation that followed in the police barracks, Ms. Graswald stopped short of confessing to the murder. But she complained about Mr. Viafore’s interest in pornography and group sex, and described her ambivalence as he was drowning.
“I’m like ripping in two halves,” she said then. “You know, angels and demons. The demon side, it’s not a good side, and that side was telling me this is gonna happen. Just let it. But the good side was, ‘Save him, save him, save him. You’re strong.’”
Ms. Graswald’s lawyer, Richard A. Portale, insists that the police coerced her into making the statements by wearing her down over hours. At the end of the questioning, she had blurted out, “I wanted him dead and now he’s gone and I’m fine with it.”
Judge Freehill decided to keep one part of the interrogation from jurors: a brief conversation Ms. Graswald had in Russian with someone toward the end of the 11 hours. “Because a finding cannot be made that the statements were voluntary during the conversation in Russian, these statements and those that follow cannot be used by the People at trial,” he wrote.
On the day of the kayaking trip in April 2015, the water had turned rough as the couple was returning to shore from Bannerman Island. The river was cold enough to cause hypothermia, according to the National Center for Cold Water Safety.
This past June, a pretrial hearing determined how investigators had obtained their evidence. In the case against Ms. Graswald, the allegations hinge largely on her statements to investigators.
Another issue that arose during the June hearing was whether Ms. Graswald had understood the meaning of the Miranda warning, which alerts suspects to their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present.
A State Police investigator in the case, Donald DeQuarto, testified at an earlier hearing that he had read Ms. Graswald her Miranda rights after they had spoken for over three hours at a police barracks, and that she had understood them. But Mr. Portale argued otherwise, pointing to her question — “Who’s Miranda?” — a few hours after they had been read.
Mr. Viafore’s body was found in the Hudson River in May 2015. A medical examiner said the cause of death was drowning and the manner of death a homicide, citing “kayak drain plug intentionally removed by other.”
Legal experts questioned that citation, however, saying the medical examiner’s office overstepped its bounds in focusing on the drain plug when its mandate was to examine the body.