SAN JOSE — For the lawyers representing 91-year-old Anthony Aiello, defending him against a murder charge for the slaying of his 67-year-old stepdaughter is not their foremost concern.
“His life is in jeopardy,” his daughter Annette, 61, said in an interview. “We’re hoping he survives, or else he won’t get his day in court.”
The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office contends that Aiello is getting adequate care and treatment at the medical unit in the Main Jail. That’s where the defendant has been held without bail since his arrest after the Sept. 13, 2018 discovery of 67-year-old Karen Navarra’s body at her San Jose home.
“He receives 24/7 medical care and has direct medical interaction,” reads a Sheriff’s Office statement. “As for the custody interaction, it is basically the same as any other inmate housed in the medical unit. The age of this inmate has not been a notable concern.”
Deputy District Attorney Victoria Robinson, who secured a grand jury indictment for murder against Aiello last week after a preliminary examination for the case was delayed because of his health, said she hasn’t seen evidence convincing her that he should be released. She argued that the crime scene, which police say had been arranged to make Navarra’s death look like a suicide, alludes to Aiello’s “level of violence and deception.” In a motion opposing bail, she said her office considered him a flight risk.
“Our foremost concern in this case is public safety,” Robinson wrote in a statement to this news organization. “The defendant was capable of an extremely violent murder just months ago.”
However, Aiello’s defense attorney Ed Caden, a retired deputy warden for Salinas Valley State Prison, said the jail environment is not designed or equipped to handle the medical and nutritional needs of someone as elderly as Aiello. The lack of facilities, he said, has resulted in 11 hospital stays for Aiello at Valley Medical Center over the last year, including six transfers between the jail medical unit and the hospital since June alone.
Aiello is suffering from worsening congestive heart failure and diabetes, Caden said, and since being jailed has become incontinent, dependent on a wheelchair, and reliant on twice as many medications as before he was incarcerated.
“I’m furious with the way this case has been mismanaged,” Caden said.
About the only thing that attorneys, prosecutors, jailers, and legal observers in Aiello’s case agree on is that there isn’t much precedent for in-custody care of a pretrial murder defendant over 90.
“This is so over-the-edge unusual for someone to be charged at age 90 with first-degree murder,” Caden said. “There’s no way he could have carried out the offense that has been charged.”
The argument over Aiello’s capacity lies at the heart of the murder case against him. Annette Aiello and Caden say he was vibrant and lived independently with his wife prior to the arrest. In a threat assessment commissioned by the defense, psychologist M. Jackson Kahle concluded that Aiello did not pose a threat if released, and in her report also wrote that his wife said she did not believe her husband killed her daughter.
But Aiello’s robust state before his arrest is also being cited by the prosecution as why he was in fact capable of killing Navarra, who worked in pharmacy at Regional Medical Center of San Jose. In one of several court filings opposing bail, Robinson wrote that Navarra’s Fitbit Alta HR fitness tracker recorded her heart rate activity until it stopped the afternoon of Sept. 8, 2018, which is when she is believed to have been killed. Police say Aiello, who was the last person to see her alive, visited Navarra right around that time, and that surveillance videos from neighboring homes also show Aiello’s car in the driveway of her home.
The evidence cited by the prosecution for Aiello’s guilt includes bloody clothing recovered at his home that tested positive for Navarra’s blood and DNA. Robinson also wrote in court filings that Navarra had suffered numerous “chop wounds” to her head and upper body, and that her throat had been slit post-mortem and a knife placed in her hand, which police contend was to give the appearance that her injuries were self-inflicted. Investigators also noted that the house appeared to have been ransacked but that nothing valuable was missing, reinforcing their suspicions of a staged scene.
The defense, for its part, argues that while Navarra was killed by someone, it was not Aiello. Defense attorneys noted that a cigarette butt with DNA that did not match anyone connected to the defendant or the victim was discovered at the scene. Prosecutors suggested that the DNA might have been brought in from the street specifically to raise suspicion of an outside suspect.
“We believe there was a third person in the house, that the victim was trying to hide from Mr. Aiello,” Caden said.
Caden also said the blood found on his client’s clothes was from a superficial cut Navarra already had when she embraced Aiello during his visit. And he vehemently objected to the use of Fitbit tracking data to implicate Aiello, calling it a gross overreach of what the device is designed to do.
“The Fitbit is not a medical device,” Caden said. “It’s the most razor-thin evidence I’ve seen.”
Robinson and her office have also argued that the crime scene, combined with Aiello’s inconsistent statements about the evidence and his visit with Navarra, show calculation that could prove dangerous if he was released. Police also say that while alone in a police interrogation room, Aiello muttered “I’m done” repeatedly. A motive has not been presented in court.
“The defendant has shown himself to be someone willing to go to great lengths to avoid culpability, staging his crime scene, fabricating stories to mislead detectives, and lying throughout this investigation,” Robinson wrote.
The defense attorneys argue that this is conjecture and illustrates law enforcement’s lack of understanding of the cognitive limitations of a man in his 90s, all of which exacerbates his failing health, they say. Aiello is scheduled to be arraigned on the indictment Monday.
“His ability to meaningfully participate in court proceedings is extremely hampered,” Caden said. “He’s going to die as a result of his incarceration.”