In a 5-2 decision, the New York Court of Appeals upheld on Thursday the murder convictions of defendants in three separate DWI cases. The specific facts in the cases were similar, although not identical:
- Martin Heidgen, while intoxicated, drove his pickup truck on the Meadowbrook Parkway in the wrong direction. After traveling for miles, his vehicle struck a limousine, killing the driver and a seven-year old passenger, and injuring another five people. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
- Taliyah Taylor drank beer, took ecstasy and smoked marijuana prior to taking off her clothing and speeding on Staten Island. She eventually struck and killed a pedestrian, and was sentenced to 22 years to life.
- Franklin McPherson, also intoxicated, drove for miles the wrong way on the Southern State Parkway and struck another vehicle, killing its driver. His sentence was 25 years to life.
The basis for the appeal in these cases surrounds the statutory language that permits a second degree murder conviction based upon circumstances that show a “depraved indifference to human life”, which creates a grave risk of death, and that causes death. The position of each of the defendants was not that they were not intoxicated, nor that they were not responsible for the crash that killed the victims. Rather, their position was that their level of intoxication prevented them from having the required state of mind – depraved indifference to human life – to support a conviction for second degree murder. The state’s highest court rejected the argument, holding that in each case, the defendant, although intoxicated, was capable of forming the requisite intent.
The dissenting judges said that juries in cases involving drunk driving are likely to find depraved indifference even where there is insufficient evidence for such a finding. They also argued that where, for example, the defendant was traveling the wrong way on a highway, the state of mind for a murder conviction requires evidence that the defendant knew he was traveling in the wrong direction.
The question now becomes how this decision will affect other intoxicated driving cases that result in a death. We suppose that the ruling does answer one question, that is, intoxication does not necessarily prevent a conviction for second degree murder. On the other hand, the results in future prosecutions will depend in large part on the specific facts presented in each case.
George Vomvolakis Law Offices
275 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016