A Suffolk judge on Wednesday threw out the indictment charging a limo driver with the deaths of four young women in a Cutchogue crash last year, ruling that the charges were the result of a flawed presentation that left grand jurors either too confused or unwilling to follow the law.
The judge’s ruling — which left the victims’ families feeling crushed and angry — means no one is now criminally responsible for 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. Four other women in the limousine were injured.
Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said his office will appeal the decision by State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho. Prosecutors have said the driver created an unreasonable risk by turning in front of traffic without looking.
The limo driver, Carlos Pino, 59, of Old Bethpage, who had been charged with four counts of criminally negligent homicide, misdemeanor assault and traffic offenses, has been sued for wrongful death by several victims’ families.
Camacho sat nine family members of victims and one of the injured survivors in his jury box in Central Islip and explained his decision directly to them as Pino listened. The family members passed a box of tissues among them, and some began sobbing even before Camacho began speaking.
The judge’s voice conveyed his own emotion as he prepared to tell them something he knew they didn’t want to hear. It was an unusually human moment — judges rarely speak directly to victims in such circumstances.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Camacho told the families. “I have agonized over this decision more than any other.”
As he began to explain his reasoning, one of the victims’ mothers said, “How can you do that?” and sobbed.
“If I am wrong,” Camacho began, and the same mother interrupted, “You are wrong.”
Camacho continued, “I would like the DA’s office to appeal my decision, but I don’t think I am wrong.”
Pino, who has been free on bail, left the courtroom without comment.
On the evening of the crash, Pino was driving a limo with eight women on a winery tour. He was heading east on Route 48 when he made a U-turn, his view obstructed by other vehicles, in front of a pickup truck driven by Steven Romeo, 55, of Southold. Romeo was charged with driving while intoxicated, but prosecutors say he was blameless for the crash and couldn’t have avoided it even if he were sober.
In his 18-page decision, Camacho identified several flaws with the indictment against Pino and said prosecutors failed to overcome the high standard for establishing criminally negligent homicide, set by appellate rulings in earlier cases. In one of those cases, the state Court of Appeals dismissed a criminally negligent homicide indictment against James McGrantham, a Brooklyn limo driver who drove the wrong way on the Belt Parkway in 2006, made a U-turn and got hit by motorcyclist Adam Armstrong, who was killed.
“Pino was attempting to make a U-turn at an intersection where U-turns are permitted, the same thing that countless other limousine drivers had regularly and routinely done at that intersection in the past,” Camacho wrote. “In my view, Pino’s actions in this case are substantially less blameworthy than McGrantham’s, and while his actions may not have been wise, they were not criminal.”
Prosecutors have argued that Pino’s charges were appropriate because he could not have completed the turn safely or legally. Camacho said the McGrantham case negated that argument.
“I am fairly certain that a U-turn across three lanes of traffic, across the median of the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, was also an illegal U-turn,” Camacho wrote.
The judge also said grand jurors were properly instructed about the meaning of the McGrantham case but indicted Pino anyway. He wrote that “suggests either jurors were totally confused” about the importance of that case “or simply chose to disregard” prosecutors.
Camacho quoted the discussion between prosecutors and grand jurors, which included one who was frustrated by the advice.
“So why are we wasting our time here?” one grand juror asked. “If we can’t vote that way [for a criminally negligent homicide charge] . . . then why give us the opportunity?”
Another grand juror said, “The question is what would happen if we didn’t listen and vote that way? What would be the repercussions?”
Camacho wrote it is the district attorney’s responsibility to “to provide legal instructions that are not so incomplete, misleading or confusing as to substantially undermine the grand jury’s essential function of preventing unfounded prosecutions.”
Assistant District Attorney John Scott Prudenti, chief of his office’s vehicular crimes unit, said outside of court that the crash was a “very, very tragic case.”
“Obviously you can tell by their reaction the devastation this case has had upon their lives,” Prudenti said of the victims’ families. “We knew going in that this would in fact be an uphill battle.”
Defense attorney Leonard Lato of Hauppauge said the district attorney’s office should have abandoned this prosecution long ago.
“They knew all along this was not a criminal case,” Lato said. “Rather than have the integrity to tell this to the families, they passed this unpleasant duty to the judge. The blame here is really on the district attorney’s office.”
Instead, prosecutors extended the victims’ misery, Lato said.
Of Lato’s criticism, Prudenti said, “I take offense to that. This case was presented fairly and fully.”
Prudenti said the grand jury heard from a “tremendous number of witnesses, viewed a tremendous amount of evidence, and the grand jury made its decision.”
Referring to the civil suits, Lato said: “The families will collect. Mr. Pino obviously has liability in the civil case. He should have seen the oncoming pickup truck.”
The DWI case against Romeo remains in place, but he faces no charges related to the crash itself.
Why the judge dismissed the charges:
n Limo driver Carlos Pino’s actions did not meet the standard of criminally negligent homicide.
n Pino failed to perceive the risk of oncoming traffic, but he did not create a risk as would be necessary to charge him with a crime.
n In attempting to make a legal U-turn, Pino did not act recklessly.
n The grand jury that indicted Pino either didn’t understand the law or intentionally disregarded it by charging Pino.