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Driver in manslaughter trial treated LIE 'like a racetrack,' prosecutor says

Areefeen Hirji, of Muttontown, one of two men

Areefeen Hirji, of Muttontown, one of two men arrested by Nassau County police and charged in connection with a fatal vehicular crash on the eastbound Long Island Expressway on Feb. 23, 2017. Credit: NCPD

A Muttontown man “treated the Long Island Expressway like a racetrack” and shares the blame with another speeding driver for a crash that killed a car passenger, a prosecutor said Thursday.

But a lawyer for Areefeen Hirji, 21, said as his client’s manslaughter trial began that Hirji was trying to get away from the other driver and braked in the seconds before the February 2017 collision in Woodbury.

“What he was trying to do was escape," attorney Stephen Scaring told jurors in Nassau County Court. " . . . This is not a race. It’s a chase."

The crash on Feb. 23, 2017, shortly before midnight, killed Giannfranco Peralta, 19, of Manhasset, a backseat passenger in a 2015 BMW 528i. 

Prosecutors have alleged Hirji was racing the BMW from behind the wheel of a friend’s 2017 Honda Accord, with both drivers racing at more than 120 mph.

The high-speed collision ripped open the BMW’s door, launching Peralta into a guard rail and cutting his body in half, according to prosecutor Katie Zizza. The prosecutor also told jurors that after the initial crash with the Honda, the BMW hit a pickup truck and the guard rail.

On Thursday, she described the deadly encounter as a “senseless” and “impromptu” race between Hirji and the BMW’s driver, Jonnathan Santos — two motorists who had never met.

“They treated the Long Island Expressway like a racetrack,” Zizza said. “ . . . They rolled the dice with other people’s lives and Giannfranco Peralta lost. He lost everything.”

Court records show Santos, 22, of Manhasset, pleaded guilty in October to manslaughter and driving while impaired by the combined influence of alcohol and drugs. His sentencing is set for January.

Prosecutors also have alleged that Hirji had been drinking and fled the crash scene. They’ve said he went to a police precinct two days later, initially giving a false statement about who was driving the Honda, before later admitting he’d been behind the wheel.

Scaring said Thursday he wouldn’t argue that his client’s behavior after the collision “was commendable,” but told jurors Hirji hadn't been intoxicated behind the wheel and didn’t find out until he saw a news report on the day after the "glance collision" that someone had died.

The defense attorney said Hirji, now a local college student, had passengers in the Honda and was driving home when he passed the BMW, before the BMW caught up. Peralta leaned out a BMW window and shouted at the Honda, and BMW occupants threw cigarettes at the Honda before a Honda passenger made an obscene gesture, Scaring said.

Hirji sped up and lost the BMW, slowing down before the BMW came barreling up and crash occurred, according to Scaring. He told jurors his client and the Honda's passengers then didn't want to stop on the LIE in order to avoid the "road rage guy" in the other car.

The Garden City defense attorney also said evidence from “black box” event data recorders of both cars would show while his client was slowing before impact, the other driver was speeding up.

Besides manslaughter, Hirji also faces a felony charge of leaving an accident scene, and misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment, making a punishable false written statement and reckless driving.

Authorities said he faces up to 5 to 15 years in prison if jurors convict him of the top count against him.

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