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Accused murderer claims mistaken ID

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Brooklyn resident Angelo Espinal was wrongly accused of killing the nephew of a Queens Supreme Court judge during a 1998 shooting rampage at the Red Lobster restaurant in Rego Park, a defense attorney said Tuesday.

"He did not shoot anyone, he did not kill anyone or even have a gun," said Espinal's lawyer, Richard Landes, during a recess in the trial Tuesday.

The Queens district attorney's office last week began prosecuting the 26-year-old Espinal in the murder of Harold Browne, 38, who was shot several times at the Red Lobster on Sept. 21, 1998 and died shortly after. Browne was the nephew of Supreme Court Judge Kenneth N. Browne, who died early Tuesday morning after suffering from prostate cancer.

Through the testimony of about 10 government witnesses, prosecutors are trying to prove the killer was Espinal, who was at the Red Lobster at the time of the shooting.

He faces a second-degree murder charge and 25 years or more in prison if found guilty by the jury at the Queens County Criminal Court in Long Island City. Judge Timothy J. Flaherty is presiding over the case.

Landes said Tuesday Espinal, a 5-foot-4 Hispanic man, was mistaken for the gunman, who could have been one of many men fitting that description at the restaurant when the shooting took place.

Three others were injured in the shooting, including one of the slain man's friends and two female bystanders.

Witnesses called by assistant district attorney Robin Leopold described the gunman as a male Hispanic with a medium complexion. One eyewitness to the shooting testified that he was the first person to positively identify the defendant as the gunman in a police lineup.

A Forest Hills woman celebrating her birthday at the Red Lobster with her family said chaos broke out in the restaurant after a Hispanic man began charging through the dining area with a black gun.

"Somebody came out of nowhere behind my husband and they, you know, took out a gun," said the woman, Wanda Figuera. "I flipped the table and went under. I kept saying, please stop this, please stop this."

But on cross examination she said she did not get a good look at the gunman and was only focused on her family and on leaving the restaurant as quickly as possible. She said other patrons appeared to be doing the same.

The defense plans to use her testimony and that of others' to show the government's case rests on shaky testimony from people who had left the scene too quickly to be reliable witnesses.

Landes, the defense attorney, said Browne, the slain man, and Espinal bumped into one another and exchanged words. The manager came to smooth things over, Landes said, and "that would have been that, but Browne wouldn't let it go."

Espinal left the restaurant, but returned for his pager, Landes said. When he did, Browne accosted him and began pulling his shirt off so that Espinal's friends had to pull Browne off him, Landes said.

He said a waiter at the restaurant will testify that Browne, seething over his fight with Espinal, told him: "That guy's going to get shot."

Tensions in the cramped, basement courtroom ran high at one point during the trial, when friends of the defendant began arguing with friends of Browne, who were attending the trial along with his stepmother, brother and cousin, because there were not enough seats. Court officers moved the trial to a more spacious courtroom that was not being used at the time.

The trial is expected to continue through the end of the week with more government witnesses and two or three for the defense.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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