Opening arguments start in case of Southern State Parkway crash that killed four

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 was speeding for thrills while high on marijuana when he lost control and caused the Southern State Parkway crash that killed four of his teenage friends, a Nassau prosecutor said Thursday.

But as the Queens teenager's trial started, his lawyer told jurors that there was no evidence that Beer was impaired early that morning in fall 2012.

Beer, 19, of South Richmond Hill, faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted of the top charge of aggravated vehicular homicide. Authorities have also charged him with manslaughter and other crimes.

He appeared to cry as Assistant District Attorney Stefanie Palma described how the force of the crash split his Subaru Impreza in two and ejected his friends, tearing their bodies apart.

The Oct. 8, 2012, wreck in Lakeview between exits 18 and 17 killed Neal Rajapa, 17, along with Peter Kanhai, Christopher Khan and Darian Ramnarine, who were 18. They were childhood friends of Beer's from Queens.

Beer, who was 17 at the time, was driving with only a learner's permit, authorities said.

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Palma told jurors in her opening statement in Nassau County Court that Beer eclipsed 100 mph in a new car he called a "rocket ship."

She said evidence will show that Beer caused the 3:35 a.m. crash by "getting high and speeding on Nassau's highway for fun."

While on that "blunt ride," the prosecutor said Beer lost control on a curve, veering into a wooded area and causing a crash that became a scene of "complete horror and devastation."

Defense attorney Todd Greenberg of Forest Hills called the accident a tragedy, but said Beer is merely negligent, not criminally responsible for his friends' deaths.

Greenberg told jurors they would hear from experts that impairment can't be judged from the amount of marijuana measured in a person's blood.

"There's also no evidence of actual impairment, beyond the blood," he said.

Greenberg also argued that the stretch of the parkway where the crash occurred is dangerous, with some emergency responders dubbing it "dead man's curve."

"It's a tragic, tragic accident, and I'm not minimizing it," the attorney said.

In testimony for the prosecution Thursday, Malverne police Officer Joseph Chiafari said he was the first to arrive at the crash scene. He said Beer looked stunned and told him he had crawled out of the wreckage.

Chiafari said the teen put his hands up to his head, saying, "Oh no, oh no," as the officer found one of the victims' bodies by a tree.

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Ambulance medical technician Michael DiSalvo testified that he smelled a strong odor of marijuana while treating Beer after the crash, and that Beer told him he'd smoked $20 worth of marijuana a few hours before driving.

DiSalvo said Beer kept asking how his friends were, what had happened on the ride to the hospital.

Beer's parents didn't respond when asked for comment as they left court.

District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who was in court for part of the morning, also didn't comment.

Testimony resumes Monday.

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