A prosecutor suggested today that the charge against Madeira School headmistress Jean S. Harris in the shooting death of Scarsdale diet creator Dr. Herman Tarnover might be reduced from second degree murder to manslaughter.
After an extraordinary courtroom confrontation between Westchester County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Abinanti and town Justice Harvey Fried, the preliminary hearing on the murder of the suburban physician was adjourned until Friday.
The confrontation arose from the prosecution's desire to avoid a public hearing until after the case against Harris, 56, has been presented to a grand jury.
In an echo of what Harris' attorney, Joel Aurnou, has been saying to reporters in her behalf, the prosecutor told the court:
"The issue of intent is a serious issue in this case. We want the grand jury to decide whether the accused should be charged with second degree murder or manslaughter."
Aurnou said a public hearing is essential to his client's interest, which he said is to demonstrate that there was no intentional crime and that what happened inside Tarnower's elegant Westchester County home Monday night when he was killed is not what has been described in some newspaper articles.
"Somebody rushed off to charge intentional murder, whereas the charge should be manslaughter at the very most," Aurnou said.
He dismissed reports that the collapse of a love triangle led to Tarnower's death.
Friends and neighbors of Tarnower have said that he and Harris were romantically involved for almost 12 years, but that he had recently been seeing Lynne Tryforos, a physician's assistant in the Scarsdale Medical Center he founded 21 years ago.
After denying the request for a postponement on grounds that Harris has a statutory right to a hearing, Fried seemed on the verge of ordering the obviously unprepared prosecutor to proceed.
"Call your first witness," Fried said at one point. The prosecutor was granted a one-day delay when it seemed evident he had no witnesses and was not prepared to proceed.
"If the people file an accusation against [an] individual, the people must be prepared to back up that accusation immediately," Fried said.
"Every crime involves the possibility of a second tragedy, a tragedy to the accused if the accused is not guilty," the judge said.
"The most important thing in this entire case may be who was the victim," Aurnou said to reporters later. He said the preliminary hearing will give the public a glimmer of his argument that Harris has been victimized.
The lawyer said Harris was examined by a doctor who advised today that she is in a state of shock and should be hospitalized. Aurnou said she would have entered a Westchester County hospital tonight if the hearing had proceeded as scheduled.
Whatever the outcome of Friday's hearing, even if the unlikely event that charges against Harris are dismissed, the prosecutors can take the Tarnower case to a grand jury.
Abinanti said subpoenas have been issued and that he plans to begin a grand jury inquiry March 21.
Aurnou told reporters that he received one of the subpoenas because his office obtained a document he would not describe from a Scarsdale post office which the prosecutor "wants to get a good look at."
"I intend to resist the subpoena," Aurnou said.
Meanwhile, Tarnower was buried today during a gentle snowfall in suburban Larchmont. Among the 350 people attending the service was James Harris, 27-year-old son of Jean Harris.