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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Man accepts 40-year sentence in murder of pregnant girlfriend in East Lyme

    A Bronx, N.Y., man who is charged with stabbing to death his pregnant girlfriend at an East Lyme motel in 2018 has had a change of heart ahead of his murder trial and accepted a 40-year prison sentence.

    Avery Hallbrooks, 31, appeared before Judge Hillary Strackbein in New London Superior Court on Tuesday to enter a guilty plea on the charge of murder in the death of 25-year-old Corina Zukowski, also known as Corina Rodriguez. The Waterford native was a mother of three who was stabbed to death following an argument over Hallbrooks’ drug and alcohol abuse. Zukowski’s family said she was trying to leave Hallbrooks.

    The plea agreement secures a conviction and avoids a trial that was slated to start in September.

    Hallbrooks had turned down the same 40-year offer in April and a 48-year-prison sentence offered in 2020.

    Zukowski’s mother, Heather Rodriguez of Waterford, voiced her objection to the plea agreement in an emotional plea in court, her husband Phil Rodriguez at her side.

    “(Hallbrooks) should serve a minimum of a year for each of the 47 times he stabbed her. We are disappointed and struggle to understand how the defendant can reject the right to argue, reject 40 years to serve in April and again have the opportunity to accept the 40-year offer months later,” she said. “The deal should be off the table at this point and he should face the maximum penalty.”

    Strackbein told the Rodriguez family that “there are no words” that could help with their pain over the loss. She said, however, that trials bring uncertainty and risk of acquittal.

    Hallbrooks would have faced a maximum of 60 years in prison on the murder charge if convicted at trial.

    State prosecutor Sarah Bowman said Hallbrooks had killed Zukowski after a Dec. 10, 2018, argument outside the now closed Starlight Inn at 256 Flanders Road in Niantic, where the two were staying. Police said Zukowski had thrown Hallbrooks’ possessions out of the motel room. Later in the evening, when Hallbrooks returned to the room, police said Zukowski let him in.

    Hallbrooks had called 911 that evening, lying to police and telling them Zukowski’s ex-boyfriend was at the motel room with a knife. Inside the motel room, police found Zukowski’s bloodied body wrapped in a blanket.

    Hallbrooks, who later confessed to the crime, allegedly tried to clean up the crime scene with bleach and by tossing a pillow case with bloody clothes in the nearby woods. He claimed Zukowski had wielded the knife and cut herself. But her death was ruled a homicide caused by stab wounds to her head, neck and torso. Some of the wounds were defensive, Bowman said. She was stabbed at least 45 times.

    Heather Rodriguez was joined in court by her husband and other family members, some wearing T-shirts with “We miss you mommy” and “Justice for Corina.”

    Rodriguez said too many women are dying in domestic violence incidents and she would fight for stronger penalties for those convicted of murder during an act of domestic violence.

    By state law, someone can face life in prison if convicted of murder under eight special circumstances, such as killing of a police officer or killing someone during a kidnapping or sexual assault.

    Rodriguez said she would press for the law to be changed to include a domestic violence incident as a special circumstance. She encourages anyone interested in discussing the possibility of a change in the law to contact her at heatherrodriguez0826@yahoo.com.

    Zukowski was the oldest of nine children and was “kindhearted, loving and funny,” her mother said. Heather Rodriguez is now caring for Zukowski’s three young children, who were ages 1, 5 and 6 when their mother was murdered.

    “The kids lost their mother and sibling. They miss her dearly and ask about her daily,” Heather Rodriguez said. “I am often at a loss when attempting to explain why their mom is not here. I scramble to come up with the right words and age-appropriate responses to help their little brains understand and process this harsh reality.”

    Hallbrooks, represented by court-appointed attorney John Franckling, is due back in court in October for sentencing. His guilty plea was entered under the Alford Doctrine, which means he does not agree with all of the state’s allegations but does not want to risk a trial and the possibility of a stiffer sentence if convicted.

    g.smith@theday.com

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