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Grand jury testimony in fatal limo crash released to defense

Limousine driver Carlos Pino at First District Court

Limousine driver Carlos Pino at First District Court in Central Islip on June 7, 2016. Credit: James Carbone

A Suffolk judge took the rare step Tuesday of ordering the release of secret grand jury testimony to defense attorneys for the limo driver charged in the deaths of four women on a winery tour last summer in Cutchogue.

Lawyers for the driver, Carlos Pino, 59, of Old Bethpage, will then be able to use that testimony to file a new motion to dismiss the charges of criminally negligent homicide and assault. State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho said he will rule on that motion in September.

Pino is charged with four counts of criminally negligent homicide in the July 18, 2015 crash that killed Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Lauren Baruch, 24, and Brittney Schulman, 23, both of Smithtown.

Prosecutors say Pino carelessly made a U-turn on Route 48 without looking for oncoming traffic. The limo cut in front of a pickup truck driven by Steve Romeo, 55, of Southold.

Romeo is charged with driving while intoxicated, but prosecutors say he had no way to avoid hitting the limo.

Camacho said Pino’s attorneys made a “compelling motion for disclosure” of grand jury testimony, which is almost always kept secret.

“They should have an opportunity to make arguments based on the evidence” instead of guesswork, Camacho said in Central Islip. The judge said he would prefer to make a ruling based on factual arguments.

Camacho did, however, specify that grand jurors were properly instructed about the implications of a 2006 Court of Appeals case that dismissed a criminally negligent homicide charge against another limo driver, James McGrantham. McGrantham drove the wrong way on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, tried to turn around and was hit by a motorcyclist, who was killed. The court ruled that did not constitute criminally negligent homicide.

Pino’s attorneys have argued that the precedent set by that case makes it impossible to prosecute their client on the same charges.

Other possible grounds to seek dismissal could include whether crash reconstruction experts reached accurate conclusions about the crash based on eyewitness testimony and other evidence.

Camacho acknowledged he was taking an unusual step.

“I am well aware that grand jury proceedings are secret, and there are good reasons for it,” he said.

One of those reasons is to prevent tampering with witnesses who will testify again at the trial. To prevent that, Camacho said he would redact any identifying information about eyewitnesses and neighbors of the crash site who testified at the grand jury.

But the defense will now know everything the witnesses said, as well as how the crash reconstruction experts reached their determination about Pino’s actions.

Defense attorney Leonard Lato of Hauppauge declined to comment, noting that Camacho’s decision “speaks for itself.”

Assistant District Attorney John Scott Prudenti said, “I want to highlight that the grand jury was fairly and properly instructed on McGrantham and the state of the law in New York.”

He declined to comment further.

Camacho ordered the lawyers to make no copies of the grand jury testimony and not to share it with anyone other than their own experts.

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