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Newly engaged couple dead because of speeding driver, prosecutor says

Rahmel Watkins of Brooklyn is on trial on

Rahmel Watkins of Brooklyn is on trial on manslaughter and assault charges in the crash that killed a newly engaged couple on the Nassau Expressway in Inwood on April 4, 2018. Credit: NCPD/ Howard Schnapp

A newly engaged couple died in a fiery Inwood crash last year because of a Brooklyn man’s reckless decision to speed past another driver before losing control and ramming their car head-on, a prosecutor said Thursday.

Rahmel Watkins, 36, is standing trial in Nassau County Court on charges that include manslaughter and assault in the deaths of Yisroel Levin, 21, and Elisheva Kaplan, 20.

“This was no accident,” prosecutor Katie Zizza told jurors in her closing argument, saying Watkins was driving about 100 mph at the time. “This was a crime.”

The couple were heading home from a Passover celebration when the multicar crash took place about 1:40 a.m. on April 4, 2018, on the Nassau Expressway, according to authorities.

Watkins' trial follows the February guilty plea of Zakiyyah Steward, 27, of Brooklyn, another motorist who was involved.

Court records show Steward admitted to charges including aggravated vehicular homicide, manslaughter, assault and driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana and is awaiting sentencing.

But the Nassau District Attorney’s Office contends Watkins also is to blame for the deadly wreck.

“He gambled with other people’s lives … and Yisroel and Elisheva, they lost. They lost everything,” Zizza added Thursday.

In contrast, defense attorney Joseph Lo Piccolo told jurors in his closing argument there was no proof Watkins was speeding at the time of the impact.

He said Watkins decided to pass Steward, accelerating to try to avoid a collision after Steward began braking and driving erratically before an “accident” occurred.

“He was doing it for safety reasons,” Lo Piccolo said of his client's actions.

The Garden City lawyer said Watkins thought he could pass Steward’s Hyundai Genesis, adding that the tragic ending “was not reasonably foreseeable.”

Watkins and Steward were in a group of friends who left a Far Rockaway apartment complex in three cars bound for a Queens casino, according to authorities.

Prosecutors say Watkins decided to pass Steward as they were going north in two different lanes and accelerated in his BMW 550i GT to more than double the road’s 40-mph speed limit during dark and foggy conditions.

As Watkins passed Steward, his BMW hit a concrete island located at a slight shift in the road and went into southbound traffic before crashing head-on into the Nissan Altima that Levin was driving, according to the Nassau District Attorney’s Office.

The force of the impact pushed the Altima’s engine compartment into the passenger cabin and crushed both occupants, according to prosecutors, who said the car burst into flames.

They said the BMW also slammed into a second car — leaving that motorist with back and knee injuries. Steward’s car, which had been speeding at about 80 mph, also hit the couple’s Altima, authorities said.

Watkins’ passenger suffered injuries including a compound leg fracture and both Watkins and Steward had minor injuries, according to prosecutors.

Family members of the victims declined to comment in court Thursday.

But Levin’s former apartment mate said previously that the 21-year-old had been a deeply spiritual person who also loved to read and dance.

Kaplan, the daughter of a longtime cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom in Lawrence, was a sweet young woman who “would offer a favor even before someone asked,” the same friend said.

The two announced their engagement about a week before the deadly wreck.

Jury deliberations started Thursday afternoon and will continue Friday.

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