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Appeals court throws out conviction from drunken driving crash that injured cop

Nassau Police Officer Willard Gomes, left, leaves the

Nassau Police Officer Willard Gomes, left, leaves the Nassau County Courthouse after Keith Dillon, right, is arraigned on charges including vehicular assault and drunken driving on July 18, 2018, in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

An appellate court has thrown out the conviction of a Coast Guard veteran who apologized for his "selfish, reckless actions" at his 2019 sentencing for injuring a Nassau police officer in a holiday drunken driving crash that jeopardized the cop’s career.

Keith Dillon, 32, of New Hyde Park, pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular assault, assault and drunken driving in a plea bargain that sent him to prison for 6 to 12 years.

But a June decision from a Brooklyn appellate court reversed the conviction and threw out Dillon’s plea before sending the case back to Nassau County Court.

A panel of justices said acting State Supreme Court Justice William O'Brien failed to tell Dillon at the time of his guilty plea that he’d have to serve a term of post-release supervision in connection with his second-degree assault conviction.

"Under the circumstances, the defendant’s plea of guilty was not knowing, voluntary, and intelligent, and therefore, must be vacated," the decision said.

Nassau court spokesman Daniel Bagnuola said Tuesday that O'Brien couldn't comment because judges are prohibited from making public comment about a pending or impending court proceeding.

Dillon's appellate attorney didn't return messages.

"We intend to try the case," Nassau District Attorney's Office spokesman Brendan Brosh said Tuesday in reaction to the appellate decision and the case's return to Nassau County Court.

The crash in Greenvale at about 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2018, happened as Officer Willard Gomes was working a New Year’s DWI patrol. Dillon drove his Dodge Ram onto the center median on Glen Cove Road before hitting Gomes’ unmarked patrol car head-on, according to authorities.

A prosecutor said at Dillon’s sentencing that his blood alcohol content had been more than three times the legal limit at the time of the crash.

Gomes, then a 12-year police veteran, suffered a brain bleed, a broken vertebra in his neck, a shattered elbow, a broken leg, an orbital bone fracture and the loss of several teeth in the wreck. Authorities said it took rescuers 40 minutes to extricate him from the wreck.

Gomes, a U.S. Army veteran who immigrated to the United States from India at 16, needed multiple surgeries and extensive rehabilitation. But he said at Dillon’s sentencing — while still physically unable then to return to his police duties — that he wouldn’t hold a grudge against Dillon and felt justice had been served.

"I’m confident in the fact that you choosing to take responsibility for your actions shows that you can be successful in turning your life around," the officer, then 38, told the defendant.

Tears streamed down Dillon’s face as he listened that day, before he offered an apology to Gomes in a trembling voice.

"From the bottom of my heart, I’m deeply sorry for my selfish, reckless actions that night … I hope that through all this, and as you said … that I can make it out on the other side of this and turn my life around and do some good," Dillon said.

Gomes, who was on medical leave, said outside the courthouse later that day that he would "do anything it takes" to someday return to the police force.

Nassau County Police Benevolent Association president James McDermott said Tuesday that Gomes remains on medical leave years later.

"It's unfortunate that this happened. Will having to go through this again is heart-wrenching," McDermott said of the case's return to court. "I'm hopeful that justice will prevail again."

In its decision, the appellate court said that contrary to an argument from Nassau prosecutors, Dillon’s guilty plea to each of the three counts had to be vacated since they were part of one judgment and the sentences were to run at the same time.

Records show Dillon, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, remains an inmate at Greene Correctional Facility in upstate Coxsackie.

A conference in the court case is scheduled for Thursday.

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