A prosecutor urged jurors Monday to convict an Oakdale man in the death of a Nassau County police officer, even if they believed the motorist whose vehicle actually hit the veteran highway patrolman also was to blame.
But an attorney for James Ryan, 28, said that while Ryan drove drunk on the Long Island Expressway on Oct. 18, 2012, the driver who struck Officer Joseph Olivieri Jr. that morning is “solely responsible” for his death.
Jurors are scheduled to begin deliberations Tuesday in the aggravated vehicular homicide trial. Ryan faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted of the top count against him.
A Nassau judge previously dismissed the top charges, which include manslaughter counts, and said Cadillac Escalade driver Francis Belizaire, 50, of Bay Shore, was the only one responsible for the officer’s death. However, an appellate court restored those charges against Ryan in the indictment.
Prosecutor Maureen McCormick said in her closing argument that Ryan turned the LIE “into his own drunken speedway” after a night out in Manhattan. At one point, she rested broken glass from a vodka bottle that authorities said flew out of Ryan’s car on a jury box partition.
Ryan was driving east on the LIE at high speed and crashed into a BMW. Prosecutors contend he kept driving, but soon slammed on his brakes.
That caused off-duty NYPD Det. Edward Wilson to rear-end Ryan’s Camry with his Honda Civic, seriously injuring the detective, according to prosecutors.
Olivieri responded to the scene and Belizaire’s vehicle hit him after the officer crossed lanes on foot to check on Ryan, according to authorities.
The prosecutor also held up Olivieri’s police baton Monday, saying its recovery in Ryan’s Camry corroborated testimony that he was standing by the Camry when the Escalade hit him.
“One heroic police officer, alone,” McCormick said of Olivieri at the scene on the eastbound LIE near exit 35 in North Hills. “Alone and trying to keep everyone, including James Ryan, safe.”
McCormick said all the crashes were “obviously and irrevocably intertwined.”
“Maybe someone else is also to blame but that does not excuse James Ryan,” she said of the officer’s death.
McCormick also said it was foreseeable Ryan’s reckless actions would lead to Olivieri’s death, saying a chain of events the defendant forged was “unbroken from James Ryan’s first drink until Officer Olivieri’s last breath.”
Defense attorney Marc Gann said that while Ryan was drunk and caused the crash with the BMW, “the alcohol and DWI has blinded” the prosecution’s view of the whole case, noting that authorities didn’t even do an accident reconstruction.
Belizaire, who has not been charged and received immunity from the prosecution, previously testified he had slowed to 30 to 40 mph as he got to the area, but police lights impeded his vision and he thought traffic problems were all to his right. He said he braked and swerved when he saw the officer by Ryan’s Camry in the HOV lane at the last second, but couldn’t avoid a collision.
He told Newsday after testifying he blames himself “somewhat” for Olivieri’s death.
Gann told jurors of Belizaire on Monday that “but for his conduct, Officer Olivieri would be alive today.”
Gann described the events as three separate crashes with three different accident reports. He said there were multiple intervening events that broke the continuity of what led to Olivieri’s death.
Those included the actions of Belizaire and Wilson, who he claimed was speeding and hit Ryan’s Camry while it was at a standstill before the Escalade hit Olivieri.
Gann also attacked Belizaire’s credibility, saying the witness admitted to a prior conviction for leaving an accident scene. He said the Escalade was uninspected and Belizaire had a second driver’s license from years ago – one that was suspended at the time of the fatality — and that the witness lied about it and should not have been driving when he hit the officer.
“He was not arrested or charged. I don’t, for the life of me, understand it,” he said.
Olivieri was 43 when he died and an LIE overpass is now named for him.