A Lynbrook couple shared their last moments stopped at a red light near their home before a motorist who was high on marijuana and driving his car “like it was a rocket ship” rammed their Toyota on Sunrise Highway and killed them last year, a prosecutor said Thursday.
But a lawyer for John Aniano, 27, told jurors as his client’s aggravated vehicular homicide trial got underway in Nassau County Court that the tragedy of the victims’ deaths didn’t mean the Lynbrook man had committed any crimes.
“This was an accident and that’s all it was,” Garden City attorney Joseph Lo Piccolo said of the Jan. 12, 2015, crash near Forest Avenue in Lynbrook that claimed the lives of John Jones, 54, and Sharon Rene Long, 53.
Family of the victims said in interviews Thursday that while the couple never married, Jones and Long had been devoted companions for about 20 years and shared an apartment with their beloved pit bull mix. The wreck happened more than a decade after they had to bear the loss of a daughter who died in the womb before birth, according to relatives.
“They loved each other. They went through a lot together,” said Long’s sister, Pamela Duncan, 48, of East Orange, New Jersey.
She said the couple had been driving home from a grocery store when they died.
“The only peace is that they were together at that time,” said Jones’ sister, Jean Jones, 61, of Rockville Centre. “Because one couldn’t live without the other.”
Aniano, who’s also on trial for charges including manslaughter and drug-impaired driving, faces up to 8 1⁄3 to 25 years in prison if the jury finds him guilty of the top count against him.
Nassau prosecutor Katie Zizza said in her opening statement he “created a nightmare” from behind the wheel of a 2004 Mercedes-Benz by driving westbound at a “racetrack speed” of 90 mph and higher on the night of the crash.
She said Aniano’s marijuana impairment “fueled his desire to drive faster,” and he blew past red lights before plowing into the back of the victims’ 2005 Toyota Avalon while it was stopped at another light. The impact propelled the Toyota into oncoming traffic before it hit another car in an eastbound lane, according to authorities.
“He drove so fast, so recklessly, so dangerously, that death was inevitable,” Zizza said.
She said while both Jones, who was driving, and Long, the passenger, also had marijuana in their blood, that didn’t change that they were the victims in this case.
Aniano’s father told Newsday after the crash that his son suffers from bipolar disorder and an incorrect medication dosage may have sparked an episode that caused the wreck.
Lo Piccolo told jurors Thursday police “made a rush to judgment” upon seeing Aniano’s physical and cognitive condition after the crash, along with prescription pills in his car, and “immediately assumed DWI.” He also said the presence of marijuana “doesn’t indicate impairment” and asked the jury to evaluate the evidence with open minds.
Lo Piccolo said later in an interview that his client’s mental health condition and medications he took, or didn’t take, may have caused him to appear impaired, but any potential impairment was not from marijuana use.
“If someone has a medical condition and causes an accident, that doesn’t make it a crime,” he said.
Aniano told police soon after the crash that he “had a glass of wine and smoked marijuana,” a felony complaint said.
An officer who responded to the scene said Aniano looked “disoriented” and “lethargic,” and also told him “I took my meds” after a question about two prescription pill bottles in his car, according to court papers.
Police said Aniano also told them later at a hospital that he “only took the Seroquel,” which is a prescription drug that treats bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Aniano — who remains jailed in lieu of $1 million bond — suffered a broken ankle and fractured vertebrae in the crash, according to his father.
The trial will continue Monday.