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Jury deliberates in Rego Park slay trial

In a cold-blooded, premeditated murder, Angelo Espinal returned to the Red Lobster restaurant in Rego Park the night he was taunted there 17 months ago so he could settle the score, a Queens prosecutor told 12 jurors in the Long Island City courthouse Tuesday.

It was a starkly different picture from the one painted by the defendant's attorney, Richard Landes of Manhattan, who said the Queens district attorney's office had the wrong person.

In closing arguments before the seven-man, five-woman jury Tuesday, the attorneys for both sides tried to leave a lasting impression of what happened at the Red Lobster restaurant on Sept. 21, 1998, when Harold Browne, the nephew of the late Queens Supreme Court Judge Kenneth Browne, was killed. Two women in the restaurant suffered minor wounds from the shooting.

Espinal faces two counts of murder - intentional murder and murder with depraved indifference to human life - two counts of assault, and one count of criminal possession of a weapon.

The jury, which began deliberations Tuesday afternoon after being sequestered, was also given the option of considering a lesser charge, first-degree manslaughter. Judge Timothy J. Flaherty presided over the trial.

The evidence appeared to be strong against the defendant, Espinal, a 26-year-old Brooklyn man who admitted he had a run-in with Browne at the restaurant the night he was shot and killed.

Assistant District Attorney Robin Leopold reiterated for jurors what had been presented in seven days of testimony from nearly a dozen government witnesses - that four witnesses picked Espinal out of a lineup, that two of them identified him from a police surveillance tape, that several others said they heard someone yell, "What do you say now?" then start to shoot and wrestle with Browne.

There was also the T-shirt Espinal was wearing the night of the shooting, Leopold said, stained with Browne's blood as evidence, and Espinal's DNA on Browne's body.

"The evidence against this defendant is nothing short of overwhelming," Leopold said, rapping the wooden jury box for emphasis.

But Landes, the defendant's lawyer, told jurors to question the credibility of several key government witnesses. Two were close friends of Browne's, he said, and both had long criminal records.

None of the witnesses could accurately describe his client, Landes told the jurors, until they were fed information by investigators, and several prosecution witnesses were evasive or combative on the stand.

In calm, measured tones, he said the government's witnesses were able to pick his client out of a lineup only after investigators had shown them images of his client on a police surveillance tape.

And while both sides agreed that the two men were involved in a heated exchange, Landes contended it was a different, unknown man, not Espinal, who fired the shots that left one dead and two with minor wounds.

"Do not compound the tragedy of the death of Harold Browne with the tragedy of convicting an innocent man," Landes said.

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