A state appeals court Wednesday threw out the manslaughter conviction of an Oakdale man whose drunken driving on the Long Island Expressway, prosecutors argued during his trial, triggered accidents that led to the death in 2012 of a Nassau County police officer.
The panel ruled that too much time had passed between James Ryan’s actions and the death of Police Officer Joseph Olivieri.
“This was not one continuous chain-reaction accident that unfolded within a matter of seconds,” the Appellate Division panel said in its decision. “Rather, a substantial amount of time passed between the accidents involving the defendant’s vehicle and the subsequent accident in which the officer was struck by the SUV.”
Ryan, 31, who was sentenced to more than 5 years in prison after he was convicted during his 2016 trial of second-degree manslaughter, second-degree vehicular homicide, aggravated criminally negligent homicide and other charges, may be released from the Collins Correctional Facility near Buffalo as early as Thursday, his attorney, Marc Gann of Mineola, said.
Gann said Olivieri’s death was a tragedy but District Attorney Madeline Singas’ office went too far when it held Ryan responsible. “It was a miscarriage of justice to blame James Ryan for his death,” Gann said.
Ryan would have faced 8 months in prison if he had been convicted only of driving while intoxicated and related charges, Gann said. He has been incarcerated for more than 2 years.
“We are disappointed by the court’s decision and reviewing our appellate options,” said Brendan Brosh, a spokesman for Singas’ office.
Ryan was speeding east on the expressway after getting drunk at a Manhattan lounge, prosecutors said during his 2016 trial, when he sideswiped a BMW near Exit 35 with his Toyota Camry. Shortly after that accident, Ryan stopped short on the LIE and was rear-ended by a Honda Civic driven by an off-duty New York police detective. Ryan’s car spun around and came to rest in the high-occupancy vehicle lane of the expressway.
Several other motorists parked their cars along the right shoulder of the LIE, the justices said in the decision. Another driver parked in the far-left lane, adjacent to Ryan’s Toyota. Olivieri parked his vehicle on the far-right side of the highway after he arrived at the scene.
The police officer was crossing the expressway on foot as a Cadillac Escalade SUV driven by Francis Belizaire, 53, of Bay Shore, approached. “The driver of the SUV approached the scene at 40 miles per hour, then slowed to only 37 miles per hour as he approached the defendant’s vehicle,” the court said.
Belizaire’s Cadillac hit Ryan’s Toyota, then fatally struck Olivieri, according to prosecutors and court documents. Ryan had a 0.12 blood-alcohol content about an hour after the accident, the justices said.
Gann and co-counsel Zeena Abdi argued during Ryan’s trial that Belizaire was solely responsible for the officer’s death. The appeals court seemed to agree Wednesday, saying Belizaire had failed to pay attention to the conditions on the highway when he attempted to drive through the crash scene.
Belizaire, who was granted prosecutorial immunity before he testified at Ryan’s trial, could not be reached for comment.
Olivieri, a 13-year veteran of the Nassau County Police Department, was 43 and a father of two when he died. An LIE overpass was named in his honor.
“We are disappointed in the judges’ ruling,” said James McDermott, president of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association. “It is because of this man’s bad decisions and reckless behavior that this police officer’s life was lost.”
The appeals court dismissed charges related to Olivieri’s death but affirmed other less serious charges, including third-degree assault, reckless driving, driving while intoxicated, second-degree reckless endangerment and leaving the scene of an incident without reporting.