Eli Ruiz | Democrat
District Attorney James Farrell, in foreground, waits to make the trial’s opening statement yesterday morning as defendant Paul Novak, behind him, looks over his notes.
Lawyers make case in Novak murder trial
Story by Eli Ruiz
MONTICELLO August 13, 2013 Opening statements in the Paul Novak murder trial took place Monday at the Lawrence H. Cooke Sullivan County Courthouse.
Novak is charged with several counts, including first degree murder, arson and insurance fraud in the December 13, 2008 death of his estranged wife Catherine. It is alleged that Novak then torched the couple’s Lava home in an attempt to destroy evidence and cover up his alleged crime.
Catherine Novak had been a member of the Sullivan West School Board for three years, then a data specialist at the district’s central office. She also had, at the time, a son, Nicholas, in kindergarten, and a daughter, Natalee, in fourth grade. The children were under the care of their father and supposedly at Paul Novak’s Glen Cove home during the commission of the alleged crime.
According to Sullivan County District Attorney Jim Farrell, Novak had a former co-worker, Scott Sherwood, drive him from Long Island to Sullivan County in December, 2008, intent on knocking his wife unconscious with chloroform and leaving her to die in a house fire.
Sherwood would plead in June to the lesser charge of conspiracy to commit murder in exchange for his testimony in the case.
But when Novak’s self-mixed concoction failed to bring his wife down, prosecutors allege he resorted to strangulation.
Farrell alleged that on that winter night in 2008, Novak was able to “lure” his unsuspecting wife to the basement level of her home by setting off a smoke detector located in the basement. “As she came to investigate, she didn’t know these would be the last moments of her life,” said Farrell.
“What he thought was chloroform did not work,” added the DA. “It did not knock her out as planned.”
Farrell further explained that the fire would be deemed undetermined in cause. “The fire in 2008 and what caused it is a mystery,” said Farrell.
An autopsy on Novak performed at Catskill Regional Medical Center (CRMC) initially found the cause of death to be asphyxiation as a result of the burning home “falling in on her.”
The problem with this early theory, offered Farrell, is that “for Novak to have her breathing stopped by fire debris she would have had to have been in the fire for some time. The evidence will show that Novak did not die from carbon monoxide poisoning… she did not breathe in the deadly gas. Catherine Novak was dead before the fire.”
Paul Novak, 41 at the time of the alleged crime, used his 26-year-old girlfriend, Michelle LaFrance, as an alibi. She told investigators that he was at their Long Island home with her when the killing and fire took place.
LaFrance would also corroborate Novak’s claims to investigators that a “fresh scratch” to his neck was caused by their cat.
But in April of last year an apparently jilted LaFrance called New York State Police investigators and spilled all the details of Novak’s plan. A subsequent autopsy revealed that Catherine Novak had sustained three broken ribs prior to her death.
“She sustained these injuries in her struggle for her life with the defendant,” Farrell told the jury.
Defense attorney Gary Greenwald painted a far different picture of the relationship between the couple who had legally separated in the spring of 2008. As part of the separation decree, Novak was ordered to pay $1,700 per month in child support and was forced to give up all interest in the family home.
Addressing the jury, Greenwald said, “You’ve heard half-truths, you’ve heard innuendo… we’re gonna deal with them. You are special people in our system. You have to hear all the evidence, and it’s not what I said, nor what Mr. Farrell says… it’s evidence and what you hear on the stand.”
Greenwald continued, “[the indictment] is an accusation. It isn’t proof and has no, no, no value whatsoever.”
Greenwald then asked the jury to keep in mind the concepts of burden of proof, presumption of innocence, and reasonable doubt.
“I’m going to come back here in my summation [closing argument] and tell you that there is present reasonable doubt in this case,” Greenwald said. “Keep in mind that the district attorney must prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore when the judge lets you know what a reasonable doubt is, and it’s [the prosecutions case] not beyond a reasonable doubt, you’re required to acquit.”
Touching on the dynamic between Novak and his estranged wife days before the killing, Greenwald said, “My client had picked up his children on that Friday December 12 , and you will hear evidence that he came up with his girlfriend [LaFrance]. His wife was working at the school and the kids were there. It was just extraordinarily amicable, very amicable between the mother and my client. He took the children home and they wanted to go to Outback [Steakhouse], so they stopped at Outback. Instead of a three- to four-hour ride it becomes a six-hour ride and they get along. He hangs out with his children, the children go to bed, uneventfully. My client goes to bed, because what my dear colleague [Farrell] hasn’t told you is that my client had worked a double, and that night in the evening he stopped at his work and that’s approximately when he went off to pick up his kids.”
Greenwald then talked about Novak’s visit upstate the week prior to the murder/arson and explained that Novak had come up to finalize the sale of a motorcycle. Greenwald again paints a picture of a former couple who still carried on an “amicable” relationship, referencing a pizza dinner between Paul Novak, Catherine Novak, Michelle LaFrance and the prospective buyer as again “amicable,” and without incident.
Read more on the week’s events in Friday’s Democrat.