3 Drivers Claimed They Were Too Intoxicated To Know Right From Wrong

ALBANY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — New York’s highest court upheld the murder convictions Thursday of three drivers who caused deadly crashes, rejecting arguments they were too intoxicated to know the threat they posed.

Convictions of Martin Heidgen, Taliyah Taylor and Franklin McPherson hinged on prosecutors’ contention they acted with “depraved indifference to human life” in crashes that shared common threads: driving too fast in the wrong lane while under the influence.

“Although intoxicated driving cases that present circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life are likely to be few and far between, we find that the evidence in each of these unusually egregious cases was legally sufficient to support the convictions,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote.

Heidgen drove his pickup truck for miles the wrong way on Meadowbrook State Parkway in 2005 and hit a limousine, killing the driver, Stanley Rabinowitz, and 7-year-old passenger Katie Flynn and injuring five others.

McPherson hit a vehicle on another Long Island parkway in 2007, killing driver Leslie Burgess.

Taylor sped naked down Forest Avenue on Staten Island in 2006 and killed pedestrian Larry Simon.

In Heidgen’s case, it was reasonable for the jury to conclude that despite being drunk he perceived the grave risk from driving on the wrong side of the highway and didn’t care, Lippman concluded. Judges Victoria Graffeo, Eugene Pigott Jr., Jenny Rivera and Sheila Abdus-Salaam agreed.

“One who engages in what amounts to a high-speed game of chicken, with complete disregard for the value of the lives that are thereby endangered, is undoubtedly an individual whose culpability is the equivalent of an intentional murderer,” he wrote.

In a dissent, Judge Robert Smith said juries in drunken driving cases with inflammatory facts are among those likely to generate convictions for depraved indifference murder, even with insufficient evidence.

In these three, the drivers were “unforgivably reckless,” unquestionably guilty of manslaughter and under a recent state statute also guilty of aggravated vehicular homicide, he wrote.

However, Smith said it’s clear that unless the defendants knew they were driving the wrong way they were not guilty of murder, and he could not see how a rational jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that they did.

The blood tests proved Heidgen and McPherson were “very drunk,” and that Taylor’s behavior showed that after taking Ecstasy, smoking marijuana and drinking a beer she was “obviously mentally impaired.”

Judge Susan Reid, in a separate dissent, said the evidence was insufficient for murder convictions in all three cases. That would require showing “a culpable mental state,” she wrote, citing the court’s 2005 ruling that recklessness, no matter how extreme, is not enough.

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice issued a statement Thursday, saying the ruling will hopefully “give other prosecutors the legal confidence to push for murder convictions for the worst of the worst drunk drivers. We have a long way to go but this is a monumental victory in our fight for safer roads.”

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