Closing arguments in Joseph Beer trial rest on marijuana impairment question

Joseph Beer in court in Mineola on Thursday,

Joseph Beer in court in Mineola on Thursday, May 8, 2014. Beer is accused of being high on marijuana and driving more than 100 mph when he crashed on the Southern State Parkway on Oct. 8, 2012, killing four of his friends. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Joseph Beer’s reckless mix of “speed and weed” led to the crash that killed his four teenage friends, a Nassau prosecutor told jurors in Mineola yesterday.

But the defense countered that the October 2012 wreck on the Southern State Parkway in which Beer was the sole survivor was a “tragic nightmare” and marijuana impairment didn’t play a role.

Beer, 19, of South Richmond Hill in Queens, faces up to 25 years in prison if the jury convicts him of aggravated vehicular homicide.

The drug impairment question was the key issue yesterday as attorneys for both sides made their closing arguments in the trial that started about a month ago. The crash killed Neal Rajapa, 17, and Peter Kanhai, Christopher Khan and Darian Ramnarine, who were 18. All were childhood friends of Beer’s from Queens.

Defense attorney Todd Greenberg pointed to the testimony of a Yale doctor who testified for the defense that in the case of frequent marijuana smokers such as Beer, the level of the drug’s active ingredient in a person’s blood isn’t a good measure of impairment.

“It’s actual impairment that is the issue here, not ingestion,” Greenberg said.

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He argued that the prosecution’s toxicology expert disregarded science that says marijuana’s active ingredient — known as THC — can stay in the body of frequent users long after the drug’s effects are gone. A trauma nurse testified her first impression was that Beer wasn’t impaired, Greenberg told the jury.

Greenberg also said dangerous road conditions played a role in the crash, which occurred in the early morning of Oct. 8, 2012. He recalled a Lakeview fire official’s description of the area between Exits 18 and 17 as a “triple threat” because of the road’s incline, a blind spot and a curve.

He reminded jurors of a state trooper’s testimony that numerous crashes in the same spot were caused by speeding. Greenberg said he would leave it to jurors to figure out if his client was guilty of criminally negligent homicide, but said the government hadn’t proven other charges.

“It’s not marijuana that causes this accident,” Greenberg said. “It’s speed.”

Assistant District Attorney Michael Bushwack said a speed of more than 110 mph was only part of the deadly equation after Beer, as an unlicensed driver, “chose to drive in spite of his impairment.”

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He displayed photos from the crash scene, including some that showed some of the victims’ bodies in the road.

“He rolled the dice with their lives and they lost. They lost everything,” Bushwack said.

He said road conditions weren’t to blame for the crash, and that Beer, based on his own account of when he smoked, was at the peak of drug impairment at the time.

Bushwack told jurors the trauma nurse was “confused” when she testified and a research paper from the Yale doctor mentioning that frequent marijuana users would have less cognitive impairment than other users still means they are impaired.

“He knew all about how marijuana would affect him. He smoked it anyway, with keys in his pocket,” Bushwack said, calling Beer’s actions a display of “lethal recklessness."

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“In the end, four young men are dead, their lives taken for nothing,” Bushwack said.

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