Charles Hynes Brings Rare Felony Charge in Vehicular Killing of 9-Year-Old

Two motorists were charged for killing pedestrians in the Bronx and Brooklyn this weekend. The alleged driver in the Wakefield crash was charged with murder, and there’s a solid chance that if convicted he will face significant jail time. And though the outcome of the case is far from certain, District Attorney Charles Hynes brought a rare felony charge against the man who allegedly drove onto a sidewalk and struck a 9-year-old boy in Fort Greene.

Anthony Byrd was charged with a class D felony for the death of 9-year-old Lucian Merryweather. Potential sentences range from seven years in jail to probation. Photo: Daily News

Reports in the Times, the News and the Post say that on Saturday afternoon, Anthony Byrd, 59, hit two cars and a building after swerving to avoid two people in a crosswalk at DeKalb and Clermont Avenues. He then reportedly made a U-turn and drove the wrong way on DeKalb, struck a 28-year-old woman in a crosswalk, hit a parked vehicle, and drove onto the sidewalk a second time, striking Lucian Merryweather, his 5-year-old brother, and their mother, who were standing at the northeast corner of the intersection.

Lucian was pinned under the SUV and died at the scene. His brother was hospitalized in stable condition. The boys’ mother was not admitted to a hospital, reports said.

According to court records, Byrd was charged with assault, criminally negligent homicide, first and second degree reckless endangerment, criminal mischief, and a number of traffic infractions, including driving against traffic on a one-way street.

It is rare for NYC prosecutors to file felony charges against a sober driver who remains at the scene of a crash, but it does happen — at least in Brooklyn. In 2010, Hynes charged Michael Oxley with homicide for the killing of cyclist Jake McDonaugh on Flatbush Avenue. In 2007, Alfred Taylor was charged with homicide for the death of a cyclist in Bedford Stuyvesant.

More unusual is that Hynes brought an assault charge in this case. Assault is a class D felony, punishable by up to seven years, but which can also result in no jail time or probation. Relatively speaking, the more common top charge would be criminally negligent homicide — a class E felony, the least severe felony category, which carries a maximum penalty of four years in jail, and a minimum of no jail time or probation.

The rationale for bringing charges against a sober driver who remains at the scene is not usually defined, but there could be a link between serious charges and more brazen forms of recklessness. The Michael Oxley case hinged on the defendant running a red light. Saturday’s incident was a particularly chaotic and devastating crash, even by NYC standards, and allegedly involved wrong-way driving. Byrd is also a registered sex offender.

Vehicular crimes cases are never a sure thing, even when police and DAs investigate and prosecute. In the Jake McDonaugh crash, police followed up with witnesses, Hynes brought a felony charge, and a jury cleared Michael Oxley of homicide as well as misdemeanor reckless driving.

The assault charge against Byrd is more serious than the homicide charge applied in the deaths of Jake McDonaugh and the Bed Stuy cyclist, but it’s less severe than those filed by Hynes against the alleged killers of pedestrians Raul De La Cruz and Alberto Serrano, who died in separate 2012 crashes that apparently did not involve alcohol. Drivers in those cases were each charged with manslaughter, a class C felony, with possible sentences ranging from probation to 15 years in prison. They were also accused of leaving the scene.

From the Times:

Of 189 traffic fatalities through Sept. 1 of this year, drivers were arrested in 20 cases and given summonses in 58 others, according to statistics provided at a recent City Council hearing on collision investigations.

Those arrests most commonly involved drivers impaired by drugs or alcohol, or who left the scene. Case law in the state can make it hard to lodge criminal charges without those factors, the police and prosecutors say.

It’s true that New York State law is tilted in favor of motorists who injure and kill, yet in recent history no New York City district attorney has mounted a high-profile campaign to reform state traffic codes. Ditto NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.

A footnote: The Anthony Byrd case will be disposed by the candidate who wins tomorrow’s election. Regular Streetsblog readers are aware of Hynes’s record on vehicular crimes. We twice reached out to Ken Thompson, who beat Hynes in the Democratic primary and will face him again in the general, and asked if we could submit a short list of written questions pertaining to vehicular crimes. The Thompson campaign did not respond to our queries.

In another crash, 32-year-old Derrick Callender was in front of his home on 233rd Street in Wakefield with his two young children when a man identified in the press as Henry Lawrence sped down the sidewalk and ran him over. Reports say Lawrence and two other men, who did not know Callender, were angry because they were prevented from buying alcohol at a nearby store. Police told the Times the murder charge was filed “because the crash was the violent culmination of a dispute in a liquor store,” and because investigators had video evidence. Police believe Callender might have been mistaken for the owner of the store.