In a decision that may hinder future prosecutions of killer drivers, New York’s highest court rejected the murder conviction of a car thief who fatally struck a Brooklyn pedestrian during a high-speed NYPD chase — ruling that the defendant showed concern for others’ safety by swerving around vehicles and people as he attempted to elude police.
The ruling drew a rebuke from Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who is nationally known for seeking serious penalties for motorists who kill.
On the afternoon of April 27, 2009, Jose Maldonado drove a stolen minivan through the streets of Greenpoint. With police in pursuit, in apparent violation of NYPD protocol, Maldonado ran red lights and sped against oncoming traffic while weaving between lanes. When he narrowly missed a pedestrian who leapt from his path, Maldonado kept going. He hit 37-year-old Violetta Krzyzak at Manhattan Avenue and India Street. According to the Court of Appeals, Krzyzak “landed over 165 feet, or almost one block, away from the point of collision.” She died at the scene.
Maldonado did not slow down after striking Krzyzak. He crashed into parked vehicles five blocks away, court documents say, and was tackled by witnesses as he tried to flee on foot.
Maldonado was convicted at trial of murder because he acted with “depraved indifference” to human life, but the Court of Appeals this month reduced the top charge against him to second degree manslaughter [PDF]. “[W]e conclude that the evidence was legally insufficient to support defendant’s conviction for depraved indifference murder,” wrote Judge Jenny Rivera for the majority, “because the circumstances of this high-speed vehicular police chase do not fit within the narrow category of cases wherein the facts evince a defendant’s utter disregard for human life.”
Whereas Maldonado’s murder conviction carried a sentence of 15 years to life, second degree manslaughter is a class C felony, with sentences ranging from one to 15 years in prison. Maldonado’s re-sentencing date was not yet scheduled at this writing.
“The Court of Appeals’ decision in Maldonado is distressing to anyone who recognizes that a wildly reckless driver, bent on fleeing the police, can be absolutely depraved toward innocent people that are in his way,” said Rice in a written statement. “It’s time for the legislature to address the issue and make it clear that the outrageously dangerous driving represented in Maldonado is not simply reckless, it is depraved. And when someone dies as a result, it should be nothing short of murder.”
Rice and her chief vehicular crimes prosecutor Maureen McCormick have for years warned that poorly-written state statutes are leading to case law that favors killer motorists. But weak laws aren’t the only cause for concern. Though the Maldonado ruling was not unanimous, five of the seven most powerful judges in New York State exhibited a troubling readiness to make excuses for a driver who they acknowledge “did not brake” after slamming a speeding van into an innocent bystander.