For Brittney Walsh's family, unending pain

Tom and Cheryl Walsh, parents of Brittney Walsh, Tom and Cheryl Walsh, parents of Brittney Walsh, at Riverhead Criminal Court after charges were upgraded to murder against Michael Grasing, who prosecutors said had a blood-alcohol level nearly four times the legal limit. (July 18, 2012) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

District Attorney Thomas Spota personally made the decision to ask a Suffolk County grand jury to consider a rare murder charge for a suspected drunken driver in the death of 18-year-old Brittney Walsh.

An 11-count indictment unsealed in Riverhead Wednesday included Spota's top requested charge, second-degree murder for depraved indifference to human life.

Still, even the rarity of the charge, only the fifth on Long Island since 1980, paled next to another heart-wrenching first in the courthouse Wednesday.

Walsh's family -- her parents and grandparents -- and some of her classmates saw the defendant, Michael Grasing, 31, of Babylon, in the courtroom for the first time.

Grasing's hands appeared to tremble as he stood mostly silent and with head bowed, according to reporters in the room.

On the other side of the bar, Walsh's father, Tom, and her mother, Cheryl, of Lindenhurst, appeared to support each other by occasionally holding hands.

Later, standing before a crowd of reporters, Tom Walsh would say he felt "uncomfortable" about seeing the man who has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the death of his daughter, who would have started college in the fall.

"I could write stories about it," he said. "But I can't today."

At one point, Tom Walsh spoke with pride about Brittney, saying that father and daughter had the same number -- 14 -- when they played soccer.

He also talked about fields in Lindenhurst, where he had played soccer as a boy. The land is now the site of Breslau Cemetery.

"I played there as a child," he told reporters. "My daughter lies there as a child."

Spota directed prosecutors to seek the second-degree murder charge from the grand jury after a review of evidence, including -- and this was unusual, a spokesman would later acknowledge -- a visit to the accident scene.

Even so, Spota acknowledged that the road ahead could be challenging for prosecutors. Of the region's five DWI-related second-degree murder cases, only one defendant, Martin Heidgen, was convicted on the murder charge.

Heidgen is appealing his conviction in the 2005 deaths of 7-year-old flower girl Katie Flynn and limousine driver Stanley Rabinowitz.

Spota said that state courts have not reached a consensus on the issue of depraved indifference. "Someone in the future could disagree with me," he said.

Nonetheless, prosecutors will push their DWI-related murder case to the end.

But for the teen's family, there will be no ending. Tom Walsh almost broke down after a reporter asked about the upgraded charges against Grasing. "Regardless of what happens in that courtroom," Walsh said as he put an arm around his wife, "it will never bring my little girl back."

Marge Lee, executive director of an anti-DWI group, knows the feeling well. She was not expected to live after a 1990 DWI-related crash that killed one of her children and injured two others.

"For families and survivors," she said, "it never goes away."

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