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Lawyers deliver closing arguments in trial of man accused of viciously slaying NYC stripper

NEW YORK — A flurry of cellphone calls and a bloody fingerprint emerged as the central points of contention during closing arguments Tuesday in the murder trial of Paul Cortez, who is accused of slashing the throat of a stripper he described as the love of his life.

Assistant District Attorney Peter Casolaro urged jurors not to focus on the polite, seemingly well-adjusted young man who testified for two days last week. Instead, the prosecutor portrayed him as a desperate spurned lover in the days before Catherine Woods was murdered in 2005.

Cortez, who wrote about his on-again off-again relationship with the 21-year-old aspiring Broadway dancer in his journal, implicated himself when he suddenly stopped calling Woods as he had done so incessantly before, Casolaro told the jury.

“He never ever, ever called Catherine Woods again after the murder,” Casolaro said. “And he says he didn’t find out about it until 10:30 the next morning. Tell me, is that a coincidence, or it because he knew she was already dead and there’s no one to answer the phone?”

Defense attorney Laura Miranda brushed aside Cortez’s calling habits, holding up phone company records to show that both Woods and Cortez called each other numerous times in the months leading up to her Nov. 27, 2005, death inside her Upper East Side apartment.
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Miranda said police focused on Cortez, now 26, because of a bloody fingerprint and his cellphone records, but ignored the fact that hair found in the victim’s hand did not match the defendant.

In fact, she said, the hairs were never tested for DNA and no hair samples were taken from Woods’ roommate and sometimes lover, David Haughn.

“I submit it is reasonable doubt that hair was found in her hand and hair was found on her body, and we know hair was never tested,” Miranda said. “There is absolutely no fibers, no hair. There is absolutely nothing in Catherine Woods’ apartment that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Paul Cortez was there.”

The prosecutor recalled the evidence differently, reminding jurors about Woods’ slashed throat and blood spatter on a wall near her bed. A faint handprint on the wall interrupted the spatter pattern, suggesting that the print was made during the crime. Later, police criminalists matched the print to Cortez.

Holding up a trial exhibit for the jury, Casolaro pointed out the smeared spatter marks.

“That means the handprint was made when the blood that sprayed on the wall was fresh,” the prosecutor argued. “The defendant is the killer. It’s definitive.”

When he testified in his own defense last week, Cortez suggested that the print was old, and may have been left there when he had sexual intercourse with Woods while she was having her period.

Casolaro mocked that suggestion and told jurors not to buy it.

“I can’t imagine someone would leave a bloody menstrual handprint on the wall,” he said.

Cortez, who was also a yoga instructor and wrote poetry and songs, had a rocky relationship with Woods ever since they met in 2002.

In a statement to police, he wrote that Woods had been distancing herself from him ever since he called her father in Ohio to express his concern about her lifestyle and well-being.

On the day of the killing, phone records show that Cortez began calling Woods frequently but all of the calls were short. Each time, Cortez called back right away — suggesting that Woods was either hanging up on Cortez, or making him upset enough to hang up, Casolaro said.

The phone records placed Cortez first at his apartment and later in the neighborhood some 20 blocks away where Woods and Haughn lived.

“He’s calling and calling and calling,” Casolaro said, arguing that Cortez waited for Haughn to go to work before a final, violent confrontation with Woods about their deteriorating relationship.

Defense attorney Miranda, however, said it was Haughn and Woods who had the bad relationship.

Woods often turned to Cortez, not Haughn, about her problems, she said. She reminded jurors of witnesses who described Cortez’s gentle nature.

She called him a “loving, caring and peaceful soul” who had no motive to want Catherine Woods dead.

“You will find when you examine the prosecution’s evidence that it is insufficient, it’s inaccurate, it’s contradictory, that it is not reliable,” Miranda said.

She added later, “You cannot, unfortunately, give Catherine Woods her life back. But you can give Paul Cortez his life back. Come back with a verdict of not guilty because that’s what the evidence demands.”

If convicted of second-degree murder, Cortez would face 25 years to life in prison.


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