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Michael Grasing not guilty of murder, convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide

Michael Grasing, now 34, is shown on his

Michael Grasing, now 34, is shown on his way to his arraignment in Central Islip on July 18, 2012. Credit: James Carbone

The West Babylon construction worker on trial for killing a teenager while driving drunk was acquitted of second-degree murder, but convicted of the lesser charge of aggravated vehicular homicide

The jury's decision means Michael Grasing, 34, faces a maximum of 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison for killing Brittney Walsh, 18, of Lindenhurst while driving with a blood-alcohol content of .32 percent, four times the legal limit. He would have faced 25 years to life if convicted of the murder charge.

The packed courtroom was silent as the verdict was taken, but after the jury left the courtroom, Grasing started to cry and turned toward Walsh's parents to apologize, until a court officer told him to face forward.

When Grasing tried to apologize, Cheryl Walsh, Brittney's mother, recoiled -- and did so again when Grasing's mother also tried to apologize as she left the courtroom.

"It's just not the time," Cheryl Walsh said later of Grasing's family. "It's not their fault. They didn't drive the car. But we've all been here six weeks."

Brittney's father, Thomas Walsh, said they were disappointed with the verdict but not shocked.

"We knew the murder verdict was something of a long shot," he said. "The jury did a great job."

Cheryl Walsh vowed to be present when state Supreme Court Justice Mark Cohen sentences Grasing on Jan. 5, and at every parole hearing. "We lost the most important thing in our life 2 1/2 years ago," she said. "Our son lost his best friend."

Before Grasing was taken from the courtroom, he embraced defense attorney William Keahon and told him, "You saved my life." Grasing's family left the courthouse in tears without commenting.

Grasing was also convicted of the lesser charges of second-degree manslaughter, leaving the scene of accident, failure to stay in his lane and speeding. He was acquitted of running a red light.

Jurors said the deliberations focused on whether Grasing had acted with depraved indifference toward human life, the critical element of the murder charge. Several jurors said an initial vote was 7-5 for a murder conviction, but after six hours of deliberation, they weren't satisfied there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt for that charge.

"It's a tough thing for you guys to have to charge," the jury foreman, who asked not to be named, said of the murder count to Assistant District Attorney Laura Newcombe.

Once the jurors agreed that proof of murder wasn't there, the rest of the verdict was "a no-brainer," the foreman said.

Like the Walsh family, Newcombe said she was disappointed. "I think proof of the murder charge was there if they wanted it, but I have to respect the jury's verdict," she said, adding that her office's willingness to seek murder charges should send a message to drunken drivers.

Both lawyers agreed it was a compromise verdict. Keahon had argued for a verdict of first-degree vehicular manslaughter, which carries a maximum of 5 to 15 years in prison.

A murder charge in a drunken driving case is rare, because prosecutors have to prove the driver had the necessary mental state to show depraved indifference to human life. This was the first such trial in Suffolk in more than 14 years.

In her closing argument, Newcombe told jurors that Grasing's mental state was obvious from his actions. Several witnesses described him driving at 70 mph to 100 mph before the June 24, 2012, crash, and one of them said Grasing went by so fast in the center turning lane that his car shuddered. Another witness, John Patsalos, 46, who died after the crash, told police he warned Grasing at a red light to stop driving that way or he'd kill someone.

Keahon conceded that Grasing was "severely intoxicated, no question about it."

But he argued that prosecutors had not proved that Grasing was reckless or that he had formed the necessary state of mind for depraved indifference to human life.

Keahon contended Patsalos' version of events is impossible to believe and worthless. He mocked the idea that Patsalos said Grasing was doing 100 mph, yet could keep up with him to warn him at the light.

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