A driver who allegedly had a suspended license during an accident that killed a 12-year-old pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Thursday, before Nassau's top prosecutor and legislators stood with the boy's family to call for such a crime to become a felony.
Zachary Ranftle was walking to school in Valley Stream on Dec. 11 when Austin Soldano, 29, of Seaford, struck the seventh-grader with his GMC Yukon, authorities said.
Police said Soldano's license was suspended after an August felony drunken driving arrest in Long Beach. Prosecutors recently got an indictment linking charges in both cases, but the only felony charges are from the August incident.
"Not guilty," Soldano said in the Mineola courtroom, with Zachary's mother and stepfather -- Valley Stream residents Kathleen and Patrick Flood -- seated nearby.
Defense attorney Robert Brunetti said he'll file a motion to separate the cases. He said Soldano is remorseful and even offered to pay for the victim's funeral.
"People are portraying him as a monster. He's not a monster," Brunetti said.
The Mineola lawyer also said a witness reported the victim "was already down before he was hit," and suggested Zachary might have tripped or been hit by another driver before Soldano's vehicle struck him.
Brunetti said his client "stopped, made a turn and you couldn't see, based upon the height of the vehicle . . . the child. It's horrible."
But Nassau Acting District Attorney Madeline Singas said there is video of the incident and "indisputable evidence" Soldano "was the cause of this tragedy." She called for legislators to make it an E Felony -- punishable by up to 11/3 to 4 years in prison -- to seriously injure someone while driving with a suspended or revoked license. She said it should be a D felony -- with a top penalty of 21/3 to 7 years in prison -- for a driver to kill someone under those circumstances.
"We are here standing with Zachary's parents to say 'Enough,'" Singas said. "Right now these drivers can only be charged with unclassified misdemeanors. ... That has to change."
State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) said he has sponsored a measure written by Singas' Vehicular Crimes Bureau chief, Maureen McCormick. Assembs. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and David McDonough (R-Merrick) said they also would sponsor a bill.
Prosecutors said Soldano faces up to 11/3 to 4 years behind bars for felony drunken driving and up to 6 months for misdemeanor aggravated unlicensed vehicle operation charges in Zachary's death.