A Suffolk judge convicted a Sound Beach man of second-degree manslaughter for killing a man while driving drunk the wrong way on Sunrise Highway, but the judge acquitted the defendant of a murder charge prosecutors also sought.
State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho, who heard the case against Christopher O’Brien, 56, without a jury in Central Islip, said that although there was enough evidence to try the case as a murder, there was not enough to convict on the higher count.
“I do have a reasonable doubt” on that charge, he said without elaborating. Murder charges in vehicular deaths are rarely brought, and convictions are rarer still.
“The verdict is exactly what we were saying from the very beginning,” defense attorney Scott Gross of Hauppauge said. “The verdict is just and fair.”
Both sides had agreed that O’Brien was intoxicated early on the foggy morning of Dec. 23, 2015, and that he drove east in the westbound lanes of Sunrise Highway, ultimately crashing into and killing Thomas D’Eletto, 57, an Aquebogue project engineer heading to work in Nassau County.
Gross said his client has been remorseful for his actions all along and would have pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charge if that had been an option.
However, Suffolk prosecutors charged O’Brien with second-degree murder, arguing at a two-week trial in Central Islip that he had acted with depraved indifference to human life.
Murder carries a maximum penalty of 25 years to life in prison while second-degree manslaughter carries a maximum of 5 to 15 years.
Assistant District Attorney Marc Lindemann said he was “disappointed” with the verdict, but said his office would continue to charge defendants aggressively when appropriate.
He noted that O’Brien stopped at a red light and could have reconsidered what he was doing before ending up going the wrong way on Sunrise Highway, but instead continued to run people off the road.
“It could have been any of those other people who was the ultimate victim,” Lindemann said. Unfortunately, he said it was D’Eletto who was killed.
“This was an individual doing the right thing, two days before Christmas, just going to work,” Lindemann said.
D’Eletto’s wife was present for the verdict but declined to comment.
In his closing argument, Gross told the judge there was no evidence that O’Brien had the state of mind necessary for a murder conviction.
“We are not asking for a pass,” Gross said. “We are not arguing actual innocence. We are asking you to hold him accountable for what he did, but not for what he didn’t do.”
Gross also said O’Brien avoided cars before the crash in Yaphank. But Lindemann said O’Brien didn’t get out of the way — he just missed.