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Defense Begins in Hartsdale Man's Manslaughter Trial

GREENBURGH, N.Y. – The defense will begin presenting its case Monday as the manslaughter and homicide trial of Hartsdale's James Austin moves forward.

Defense attorney Earl Raynor is expected to call a handful of character witnesses, including a former co-worker, to testify on behalf of the former Westchester County Airport ground-crew handler. Presiding State Supreme Court Judge Robert Neary said the court may be ready for each side’s final argument as soon as Monday afternoon.

Austin has been charged with criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter in the death of his 71-year-old mother, Ida Austin, last July.

The prosecution rested its case against Austin on Friday after calling a Pace University anthropology professor to the stand.

Denise Santiago, an expert on the Santeria religion, testified that, from what she witnessed in reading letters written by Ida Austin and observing pictures of the scene where she died, Austin did not seem to be practicing Santeria, a key claim in the defense’s argument.

“If you look at the whole thing, people that practice Santeria use specific language,” she said. “When you read that letter, it’s not consistent with the language of people that practice Santeria.”

Santiago’s testimony capped two weeks of gripping and sometimes graphic testimony by prosecution witnesses.

Assistant District Attorney Lana Hochheiser showed the jury pictures of Ida Austin’s grime-infested living conditions, video of James Austin’s two-hour interrogation by Greenburgh police and testimony by a high-profile insect expert .

The defense has attempted to establish Ida Austin was an ardent believer in Santeria, a West African and Caribbean religion, which prevented her from seeking medical help.

In a motion submitted Friday, Raynor asked Neary to dismiss all charges against his client, arguing the prosecution had failed to show James Austin caused his mother’s death.

“Any risk (of death) in this case was created by Ms. Austin,” Raynor said. “She wouldn’t accept help. She didn’t want to go to the doctor. She created the risk.”

Prosecutors countered that as her primary caregiver, James Austin had a responsibility to care for his mentally and physically ill mother. They said that by convincing neighbors and police not to come into the home, Austin’s actions led to his mother’s death.

“Ms. Austin was in no position to make choices, but even if she wanted to reach out for help, she couldn’t,” Hochheiser argued. “She was a prisoner in that location.”

Neary is expected to make a decision on the motion to dismiss shortly, but said the defense’s argument may be a “stretch.”

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