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WRONG SETTING FOR PIGNATARO PERFORMANCE

Anthony Pignataro missed his calling.

He should not have wasted his time in medical school. He should not have invented a bizarre hair-replacement treatment. The man, long ago, should have taken a few acting classes and headed for Hollywood.

Instead of a felon, he could have been a star.

Pignataro, the nightmare physician and leading candidate for Worst Husband of the Year, was sentenced Friday morning for the near-fatal arsenic poisoning of his wife, Deborah. He's already in jail for violating parole in the death of a plastic surgery patient after a botched operation.

Pignataro made a tearful plea Friday for leniency, mercy and understanding. Had Academy Award voters been judging the performance, Pignataro would have walked out with a statue instead of a 15-year sentence.

His five-minute statement would have humbled Tom Hanks. Hands trembling, tears flowing, he read in a quavering voice words scribbled on three sheets of yellow paper.

He had a Nixonian shadow on his face, wore an off-the-rack gray suit and sported a bad rug of his own design. Once rich and reputable, he looked small and pitiful. It was pity he sought and pity he would have gotten, had his audience been in a movie theater instead of a courtroom.

"How can I tell my family how very sorry I am?" he said.

Everyone in court knew his history of crimes and manipulations. They saw this melodrama for what it was: not a plea from the heart, but a chance to see the master of deceit in action.

Maybe that sounds insensitive. Indeed, there may have been a particle of sincerity in some of the words, drops of emotion in a few tears. He might have been believable, if his worst crime against humanity was a hair-replacement system that involved drilling metal sockets into the skull of the victim, uh, client. But Pignataro did too much harm to too many people. He long ago forfeited the benefit of the doubt.

It was the wrong crowd for this act.

As he spoke, Deborah Pignataro's relatives -- seated in the first row -- shook their heads and rolled their eyes in disbelief.

"He's a phony," said one of them outside court, declining to give his name. "It was totally choreographed."

Judge Mario Rossetti, the main target of Pignataro's plea, didn't buy it either. When the words ended and the tears stopped, Rossetti whacked Pignataro with 15 years. It was the maximum, with no parole until nine-tenths of the sentence is served.

Pignataro asked for mercy but deserved none.

He didn't just poison his wife with arsenic. He stood mute while doctors tried to save her. He pointed a finger of suspicion at the husband of Sarah Smith, the woman who died from his inept surgery. He claimed his wife was suicidal, had poisoned herself. Then he dragged her, still not well enough to stand, through months of custody hearings.

"My pride was gone," he said. "The pressure of no income consumed me. Multiple failures was more than I could reconcile."

OK, we hear that. But the answer isn't poisoning your wife.

He gave no reason for spicing her food with arsenic, other than saying he was "consumed by my own bitterness."

If that's a reason, I'm George W. Bush.

Prosecutors think he wanted his wife to die on the operating table. In his twisted mind, it would exonerate him for death of his patient during plastic surgery. Hey, accidents happen.

He had his second chance years ago, when he got out of jail for Sarah Smith's death.

He was humbled. Understandably. He'd lost his reputation and his medical license. The money was gone. He should have gone to a shrink and come up with Plan B.

Instead, he turned to heroin and drink and dosed his wife's food. She stood by him during the Smith trial, she kept the family together the six months he was in jail, she renewed their marriage vows when he got out. The reward for her faith was nearly a tombstone.

This wasn't a crime done in a flash of anger. He planned it, carried it out and tried to cover it up.

Had he been a nobler man, had he not turned on his loved ones, we might have had a Grecian tragedy. We might have had a story of hubris and humiliation, of a proud man's rise and fall.

There was none of that here. There was just a guy with a bad rug, reading a script no one believed.

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