New Paltz man faces 25 years to life for the murder of two-year-old Asia Medina Perez

Joseph Rodriguez.

Joseph Rodriguez.

A New Paltz man faces 25 years to life in state prison after he was convicted of second-degree murder in the June 2012 slaying of two-year-old Asia Medina Pérez. A seven-woman, five-man jury handed up the verdict against Joseph Rodriguez on Thursday, Nov. 14, following six days of often-horrific testimony and 12 hours of deliberations.

Rodriguez, 44, was accused of the brutal beating death of his wife’s niece back on June 20, 2012. The girl was spending the summer in New Paltz while her parents, César Pérez and Katidty Medina Pérez, were traveling. Rodriguez told police that he came home that morning after spending the night in Newburgh with a prostitute friend, got his two children, ages 5 and 6, on a bus to school and fell asleep next to his wife Dalia. When he awoke around noon, Rodriguez told police, Asia was missing. After searching the house and finding an air conditioner removed from a window in a back bedroom, Rodriguez told cops that he had found Asia’s battered body in a pile of leaves on a steep hill behind the house.

But Asia’s blood — splattered on a brick chimney behind the house on Rodriguez’s boots; on a tee-shirt found by police damp and smelling of bleach on the day of the murder; and, perhaps most damningly, on a pile of leaves where Rodriguez’s car keys were found by investigators — told a different story. In court, district attorney Holly Carnright said that the bloodstains and other evidence pointed squarely to Rodriguez.

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Speaking after the trial, Carnright said that he believes that Rodriguez killed the girl by slamming her repeatedly against the chimney; an autopsy found that Medina Pérez sustained multiple skull fractures consistent with five to ten separate blows to her head. Carnright said that Rodriguez then spent the next few hours hiding evidence, concocting an alibi by making a series of phone calls with no one on the other end in front of his wife and removing the air conditioner to make it appear that a stranger had entered the house and abducted Asia.

Carnright said that Rodriguez’s attempts to cover up the crime made for a complex and at times frustrating investigation. Rodriguez would not be indicted for Pérez Medina’s murder until March 2012. In the intervening nine months, New Paltz cops, State Police investigators and sheriff’s detectives had to pore through hundreds of items recovered from the couple’s cluttered property, sorting out those that could be pertinent to the investigation. There were phone records to decipher and crime scene experts to consult, lists of potential suspects to eliminate.

But according to Carnright, police were never in doubt about Rodriguez’s guilt. In fact, he had spent 14 years in prison for another murder committed in the Bronx in 1993 that bore a few chilling similarities. In that case, Rodriguez beat a young woman to death, then set fire to her apartment to cover up the crime. He was convicted of second-degree murder, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. He later pled guilty to manslaughter in the case and in 2007 was released from state prison.

The key to the case, Carnright said, was proving plainly that Asia’s death could not have been the work of a stranger. “We were pretty sure from Day One what was going on,” he said. “But knowing what’s going on and proving it are two different things.”

In defending Rodriguez, attorney Cappy Weiner, while never mentioning Rodriguez’s criminal past, made the case that police zeroed in on his client early in the investigation and failed to consider other theories of the crime. Weiner presented pictures showing Dalia Rodriguez wearing the same extra-large white tee-shirt found in the dryer. He questioned why police never sought fingernail scrapings or a physical examination of Dalia and why they did not obtain a DNA sample from her until months into the investigation (Joseph Rodriguez was asked and agreed to a DNA swab within hours of the murder).

The defense attorney put Joseph Rodriguez’s adult daughter on the witness stand to testify that her father doted on Asia and treated her like one of his own children. Weiner also elicited testimony that Asia had suffered a cut lip shortly before her death: an injury that could explain the blood on the shirt and the boots.

But, Carnright pointed out, Weiner had never provided a plausible explanation of how Rodriguez’s car keys turned up in the bloodstained leaf pile at the corner of the house where Asia was beaten to death. As for a motive, Carnright said that, like most child killings that do not involve sexual abuse or kidnapping for ransom, a sudden outburst of rage at typical child behavior was the most likely explanation. Despite evidence of discord in Rodriguez’s marriage and his violent past, there was no evidence of prior abuse or neglect. “There’s no such thing as a motive to kill a child,” said Carnright, “just anger.”