New York State's highest court upheld murder convictions yesterday in three driving while intoxicated crashes, including one in which a man drove the wrong way on the Meadowbrook State Parkway and hit a limousine, killing a 7-year-old flower girl.
The Court of Appeals ruled that despite being intoxicated, Martin Heidgen, Franklin McPherson and Taliyah Taylor all were capable of forming the necessary state of mind to be guilty of second-degree murder by "depraved indifference to human life."
In the 5-2 decision, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote that few intoxicated driving cases will qualify as murder, but these three did.
Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice hailed the decision as "a monumental victory in our fight for safer roads."
"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," Rice said. "Hopefully this ruling will give other prosecutors the legal confidence to push for murder convictions for the worst of the worst drunk drivers."
Heidgen, 32, of Valley Stream, crashed head-on into a limousine in July 2005, killing driver Stanley Rabinowitz, 59, of Farmingdale and flower girl Katie Flynn of Long Beach. She and her family were returning home after attending a wedding.
Relatives of the victims did not respond to requests for comment. Heidgen is serving 19 years to life in prison.
McPherson, 26, of Deer Park, drove drunk the wrong way for several miles on the Southern State Parkway in October 2007 before hitting a Jeep and killing its driver, Leslie Burgess, 45, of Amityville. McPherson is serving 25 years to life.
In October 2006, Taylor, 31, of Staten Island, drank beer and got high on Ecstasy and marijuana before stripping and driving at high speed on Forest Avenue in Staten Island -- until she struck and killed pedestrian Larry Simon, 41. Taylor was sentenced to 22 years to life.
Lippman wrote that the evidence in all three cases supports the necessary legal conclusion that the defendants knew their actions had a high risk of causing death and disregarded those risks.
In Heidgen's case, Lippman noted there was testimony that Heidgen veered into the paths of several cars before hitting the limo.
"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.
Judges Robert Smith and Susan Read dissented. Smith said the emotion of such cases leads to unwarranted murder convictions when a manslaughter verdict is more appropriate.
It seems unlikely that Heidgen and McPherson knew what they were doing, Smith wrote.
"Why, after all, would anyone do such a dangerous thing on purpose? . . . They were unforgivably reckless in getting on the highway at all in the condition they were in, and the consequences of their recklessness were horrible. They were unquestionably guilty of manslaughter in the second degree," he wrote.
McPherson's attorney, Jona-than Edelstein of Manhattan, said Smith got it right.
"The court here missed the chance to put a limit on emotion-based overcharging," he said, adding that what McPherson did is "not the equivalent of somebody who puts a gun to somebody's head and pulls the trigger."
Heidgen's appellate attorney, Jillian Harrington of Monroe Township, N.J., agreed. "I firmly believe Mr. Heidgen was convicted of the wrong crime in this case," she said. "This was a horrible tragedy, but that doesn't transform manslaughter into murder."
Defense attorney William Keahon, who is representing two defendants charged in similar cases in Suffolk, said the decision won't necessarily affect his clients.
"The decision is not unexpected," Keahon said. "Clearly, the issues in these cases are fact-specific to each case."
He represents Michael Grasing, 32, of Babylon, charged with murder for killing Lindenhurst resident Brittney Walsh, 18, while driving drunk in Lindenhurst; and Thomas Herman, 46, of Patchogue, accused of killing West Islip resident Sam Longo, 81, in Sayville while driving under the influence of oxycodone, PCP and other drugs.
Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said he was pleased with the Court of Appeals decision and "we strongly believe there is legally sufficient evidence to prove the guilt" of Grasing and Herman.