The family of a woman killed by a Huntington man driving while high on aerosol cleaner demanded that laws for such cases be toughened as the man was sentenced Friday to 4 to 12 years in prison.
Because the law does not consider such cleaners to be intoxicants, the top charge for people who inhale them, drive and kill someone is second-degree manslaughter. The higher charge of aggravated vehicular homicide applies to people who are intoxicated by alcohol and specific other drugs.
James Murphy, 21, pleaded guilty in February to second-degree manslaughter. He admitted to running a red light on Commack Road and killing Herta Palma, 63, of Commack, on Dec. 31, 2013.
Joseph Palma, one of her sons, said in the Riverhead courtroom that he would work with District Attorney Thomas Spota to change the law. Aggravated vehicular homicide carries a maximum penalty of 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison. The maximum sentence for second-degree manslaughter is 5 to 15 years in prison.
"We have already been given a life sentence of pain and suffering," Joseph Palma said.
State Supreme Court Justice John Collins said he agreed the law should be changed.
"We are saddled with dealing with this incident with the laws that are on the books presently," he said. "I apologize to the Palma family for the frailties of our law."
Murphy vowed to be a better person when he gets out of prison, and said he hopes to speak to high school students about the dangers of getting high on inhalants.
"I can't express how sorry I am," he said, facing the Palma family. "There's a better way to live with your life. I've done a lot of screwing up in my past."
Assistant District Attorney Carl Borelli said Murphy was trying to avoid the consequences of that when he turned from marijuana to Dust Off to get high. Murphy was hoping to avoid having his marijuana use show up on a drug test for employment, Borelli said. But then Murphy drove, sideswiped one car and then sped off, only to collide with Palma.
Her family said the only reason she was on the road that afternoon was to avoid being exposed to drunken drivers that night on New Year's Eve.
"Was it worth it?" Michael Palma, another son, asked Murphy in court. "I hope you have a long time to think about it."
Joseph Palma said his mother "was very much present in our lives," a constant source of support and friendship.
Defense attorney Christopher Cassar, of Huntington, noted that his client immediately took responsibility for what he did and has been sorry ever since.
"He understands what he did was terrible," Cassar said.
Collins said he could see Murphy was remorseful, but said his behavior was so depraved he should have faced more serious charges.
Assistant District Attorney John Scott Prudenti agreed, and said the law should be flexible enough to cope with new intoxicants not listed now in the law.
"What's going to be the next thing out there?" he said.