Lloyd Williams had been fleeing from Freeport police after a fight at a bar in June 2011, prosecutor Brendan Ahern said. He blew through several stop signs and traffic lights, going almost three times the speed limit, when he smashed into Whethers' car, cutting it clean in half, near Guy Lombardo Avenue and Pine Street, he said.
It was behavior so egregious that Ahern is asking jurors to convict Williams, 28, of Hempstead of depraved indifference murder. Williams had initially been charged with manslaughter, but a grand jury upgraded that charge.
"This is murder because he didn't care about human life," Ahern said in his opening argument before Nassau County Judge Tammy Robbins. "He behaved in such a dangerous, reckless manner that Chad Whethers' death was almost inevitable."
A depraved murder charge is rare and difficult to prove in a vehicular case, experts said. To prove a person is guilty of that crime, prosecutors must show that the behavior was "so wanton . . . so devoid of regard of the life or lives of others," that it was as serious under the law as if he killed someone intentionally, prosecutors said.
Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice has brought murder charges in five vehicular cases since taking office in 2005, and won two top-count convictions, her spokesman said. Most notably, Rice won a murder conviction against Martin Heidgen, who was speeding the wrong way on the Meadowbrook Parkway in 2005 when he slammed into a limousine, killing its driver and a 7-year-old girl, although it was Rice's predecessor, Denis Dillon, who first brought that charge.
In his opening statement, Williams' lawyer, Joseph LoPiccolo of Garden City, said the case does not rise to the level of murder. "The law will not support these charges," he said. "He was not aware of the risks, and he did not consciously disregard them."
LoPiccolo said there is no evidence his client was aware of police lights and sirens as he fled, or even that he had run the red light when his car smashed into Whethers'.
But Ahern said that minutes before the crash, Williams and a friend left the Phase Bar in Hempstead, where they had been in a fight that ended when his companion fired his gun. Williams, whose blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit of .08 percent at the time of the crash, fled in the Mitsubishi, Ahern said.
Ahern told the jury Whethers, 24, of Roosevelt, had been "internally decapitated," by the crash's force. At that, several people in the courtroom rushed out, weeping."This is a case about murder," Ahern said. "No pause, no caution, no care if someone was going to die."