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.
The 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.
Heidgen drove his pickup truck for miles the wrong way on Long Island's 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 Staten Island's Forest Avenue in 2006 and killed pedestrian Larry Simon.
"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.
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," Lippman 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 Taylor's behavior showed that after taking Ecstasy, smoking marijuana and drinking a beer, she was "obviously mentally impaired."
Judge Susan Read, 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 earlier ruling that recklessness, no matter how extreme, is not enough.
Heidgen, now 32, is serving 19 years to life in prison. McPherson, now 27, is serving 25 years to life. Now 31, Taylor was sentenced to 22 years to life. Each was also convicted of lesser charges that weren't contested in these appeals.
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, whose office prosecuted Heidgen, said she hopes the ruling will give other prosecutors the confidence to push for murder convictions for the worst drunken drivers. "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," she said.
Heidgen's attorney, Jillian Harrington, said she was disappointed by the decision, calling it a step backward from previous case law, and is considering federal court options. "He was convicted of the wrong crime. ... We intend to continue to fight this conviction," she said.