Verdict in ‘He Said, She Said’ Trial

Sheila Mullahy, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, stood outside of the East Hampton courthouse after the first jury trial of her career

    Gabriele Yupa-Buestan of Springs took the stand in his own defense last week during a two-day jury trial in East Hampton Town Justice Court, insisting that he was not the one driving the 2003 Ford that crashed a year ago off Bow Oarsman Road in East Hampton. It was an ex-girlfriend, Florina Molina-Zamora, 41, who was behind the wheel, he said.

    Both Mr. Yupa-Buestan, who was facing possible jail time if found guilty of aggravated drunken driving, and Ms. Molina-Zamora testified that they were in the middle of a lover’s quarrel when the car blew through a stop sign and crashed, and that they had not seen each other since. They agreed on little else, however.

    David E. Martin Jr., an East Hampton Town police officer, told the five-woman, one-man, all-white jury that he had found the defendant standing on the road by the car, which was wedged between trees, and the woman walking away from the wreck. Mr. Yupa-Buestan initially said he had been the driver, Officer Martin testified. “I asked if he was involved in the crash, and he said yes, he was . . . he told me the brakes were not working properly.” Not long after, however, Mr. Yupa-Buestan began denying that he was driving the car, the officer said.

    While Officer Martin was administering roadside sobriety tests to Mr. Yupa-Buestan, Ms. Molina Zamora walked to nearby Boatheaders Lane, where she was living. Officer Frank G. Sokolowski went there to speak with her. When he knocked on the door, he told the jury, a man answered. “That’s my girlfriend,” the man told him.

    Officer Sokolowski took Ms. Molina-Zamora to police headquarters, where she gave a statement.

    Sheila Mullahy, an attorney with the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society who was trying her first juried case, represented Mr. Yupa-Buestan. She did not challenge the fact that he was drunk that night; his blood-alcohol content had been recorded at police headquarters at .20, well over the legal limit. Rather, the soft-spoken Ms. Mullahy pointed out that neither Officer Martin nor Officer Sokolowski had actually seen him driving the car.

    Maggie Bopp, a Suffolk County assistant district attorney who was handling the prosecution, put Ms. Molina-Zamora on the stand next. She was a reluctant witness, who had been served with two subpoenas in New York City before agreeing to appear in court.

    Because neither she nor the defendant speaks English, Anna Kestler, a court translator, sat by the witness stand, seamlessly flowing one language into the other.

    Ms. Molina-Zamora  told the jury she was from Mexico and had first come here many years ago. “Like everybody, you come to East Hampton to work,” she said.

    “How long had you known the defendant?” Ms. Bopp asked.

    “I’m not sure. Around four months.” She told the jury Mr. Yupa-Buestan had called and asked her out for beer and dinner, and that after several hours of drinking, they went to the Hess gas station in Wainscott to buy more beer.

    “After buying the beer, on the way back he said he wanted to go to his house,” Ms. Molina-Zamora testified. She, however, wanted to go home. “My boyfriend was waiting for me. He had just gotten in.”

    The two began to fight, she said. “He got mad because I didn’t want to go to his house. He started pressing the speed. Instead of turning right, he turned left, because he wanted to take me to his house. We crashed into the trees. He started screaming that he wasn’t my boyfriend anymore, he wasn’t my boyfriend.”

    The woman told the jury she did not go to Mr. Yupa-Buestran’s house that night.

    “Were you ever driving the vehicle that night?” Ms. Bopp asked.

    “No.”

    In her cross-examination, Ms. Mullaly zeroed in on Ms. Molina-Zamora’s sworn statement to police on the night of the crash.

    “I ask you if you went to his house that night,” she asked the witness.

    “No.”

    “You made a statement to the police. And you swore to the contents of that statement.”

    “I don’t speak much English.”

    Justice Catherine Cahill stepped in. “When you gave this statement, was it with the assistance of the Language Line?” (Language Line is a service used by police and courts across the country when a translator is unavailable.)

    “Yes, but there are many things here I didn’t say.”

    Ms. Mullahy had the witness read a sentence from her statement: “I went with my boyfriend to Copeces Lane,” where Mr. Yupa-Buestan lives. “That is a lie,” Ms. Molina-Zamora said after reading the sentence.

    “When you were in the Hess station, isn’t it true you met somebody?” the defense attorney asked. “Isn’t it true you invited him to go drinking with you?”

    “Yes, we met.”

    “Isn’t it true that this caused an argument?” Ms. Molina-Zamora agreed.

    After a few more questions, Ms. Mullahy asked, “Isn’t it true that you were driving? When you crashed the car — ” Ms. Bopp rose from her seat and objected, and Justice Cahill ordered the question stricken.

    When it came Ms. Bopp’s turn again, she asked Ms. Molina-Zamora, “Did you lie to the police?”

    “No. I don’t have a reason to lie.”

    Mr. Yupa-Buestan took the stand next and painted a different picture, starting with when the couple left the Hess station. Ms. Molina-Zamora, he said, was driving.

    “I told her it wasn’t right for other people to be with us,” he said of the man they had just met. “If we are alone, we are supposed to be alone . . . she got mad. She missed the stop sign.”

    It was the prosecutor’s turn to cross-examine. “Did you tell the police officer that you were driving and then immediately say you weren’t driving?” Ms. Bopp asked.

    “I don’t speak English.”

    “You spoke to the language interpreter.”

    “I don’t remember.”

    “The officer asked you if you were driving. You said ‘Yes,’ then you said ‘I don’t know.’ “

    “I don’t remember.”

    In her closing argument, Ms. Bopp told the jury, “The defendant lied to you. Don’t be fooled by his lies.”

    In the end, jurors did not know what to think. After 45 minutes, they found the defendant not guilty. “It was too many lies and inconsistencies,” one of the female jurors said on the way out of the courthouse.

    Afterward, Ms. Bopp spoke with four of the jurors. Mr. Yupa-Buestan had a prior alcohol-related conviction, she told them, for driving with ability impaired. She was not permitted to mention it during the trial, she told them, unless the defense mentioned it first.

    “That pisses me off,” said the male juror. “That guy should be thrown in jail and sent back to Ecuador.”

    One of the women said she wished there could be a do-over.

    Inside the courtroom meanwhile, Ms. Mullahy was speaking with a Legal Aid supervisor, Sabato Caponi, who had sat in on the trial. Mr. Caponi encouraged her to go outside and speak to the jurors.

    Ms. Mullahy went to the courthouse entrance where Ms. Bopp and the four jurors were standing.

    “Your client should be in jail,” the male juror told her. She took a step back, clearly surprised by the man’s vehemence.

    “You did your job,” a court employee whispered to her.