Last month, the Court of Appeals — New York’s highest court — upheld the murder convictions of impaired drivers who killed people in three crashes in Nassau County and Staten Island.
Martin Heidgen was driving in the wrong direction on the Meadowbrook Parkway when he slammed a pickup truck head-on into a limousine, killing driver Stanley Rabinowitz and 7-year-old Katie Flynn, whose family had just attended a wedding. Franklin McPherson drove against traffic on the Southern State Parkway before colliding with an SUV driven by Leslie Burgess, who was killed. Taliyah Taylor was high on Ecstasy and marijuana when she sped down Forest Avenue in Staten Island, striking pedestrian Larry Simon.
All three were convicted of murder, and all appealed their convictions on the grounds that they were too impaired to comprehend what they were doing. The court rejected that argument in a 5-2 decision, agreeing with prosecutors that the defendants exhibited a “depraved indifference to human life.”
“Although intoxicated driving cases that present circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life are likely to be few and far between,” wrote Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, “we find that the evidence in each of these unusually egregious cases was legally sufficient to support the convictions.”
Said Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, whose record on drunk driving cases is recognized nationally: ”There are times when this crime is murder, and we have to be willing to call it that when we know it will save lives. Hopefully this ruling will give other prosecutors the legal confidence to push for murder convictions for the worst of the worst drunk drivers.”
Nassau vehicular crimes chief Maureen McCormick prosecuted Heidgen and McPherson, and argued their cases before the Court of Appeals. Streetsblog asked McCormick via email about the significance of the court’s decision.
It appears the Heidgen, McPherson and Taylor rulings were combined, correct? If so, how did this come to be?
The Court of Appeals combined the cases for argument and decision because they each dealt with impaired/intoxicated driving and the application of depraved indifference. The court did not have to reach the same conclusion for each case just because it combined them for argument. They could have distinguished the cases in the decision if they believed they should not all be upheld. In this case they were all upheld.
As a prosecutor, what elevates a DWI fatality case from manslaughter to murder? Do you expect to see more murder prosecutions against drunk drivers, rather than manslaughter?
Depraved indifference cases are intended to be rare under the law. Note the language used to instruct the jury when it is considering a depraved indifference charge: