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Rare drunken driving murder trial set for Babylon man Thursday

Michael Grasing heads to his arraignment in Central

Michael Grasing heads to his arraignment in Central Islip Criminal Court on July 18, 2012. Grasing is charged with second-degree murder in the June 24, 2012, death of Brittney Walsh, 18. Credit: James Carbone

For the first time in more than 14 years, a drunken driving murder trial is expected to begin Thursday in Suffolk County for a Babylon man accused of killing a teenage driver while driving drunk and recklessly.

The Riverhead trial of Michael Grasing, 33, will also be the first on Long Island in two years.

Grasing is charged with second-degree murder in the June 24, 2012, death of Brittney Walsh, 18. Prosecutors say Grasing was speeding on Montauk Highway in Lindenhurst with a blood-alcohol content of .30 percent -- almost four times the legal limit of .08 percent -- when he hit the back of Walsh's sport utility vehicle at high speed.

Typically, those who kill others while driving drunk are charged with manslaughter or aggravated vehicular homicide. But in rare cases, where prosecutors believe a defendant acted with depraved indifference to human life, they will seek a murder conviction.

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said Grasing's actions deserve the charge.

"The death of young Brittney Walsh was a direct result of defendant Michael Grasing's wanton disregard for the citizens of Suffolk County," Spota said in a statement. "Grasing drove at speeds approaching 100 mph, through multiple red lights and across lanes of traffic without braking. The defendant did stop at one light and a fellow driver told him to get off the road before he killed someone. Ignoring the plea, the defendant kept on driving . . . until he crashed into the back of Ms. Walsh.

"Even after this the defendant continued to drive on the sidewalk for three blocks, taking out numerous street signs and causing pedestrians to scatter," Spota added. "Only after crashing into a utility pole did the defendant stop driving."

Defense attorney William Keahon said little about the case. "I believe in my client's innocence," he said. "He is 33 years of age and has never, ever been convicted of a crime."

Keahon said he would defend Grasing further "in the courtroom, and not by statements to the press."

Walsh, who graduated from high school two days before she died, was coming home from her job at Kmart.

During jury selection, Assistant District Attorneys Laura Newcombe and Marc Lindemann warned potential jurors that evidence will be gruesome. Jurors will see surveillance video of the crash, and photos of Walsh crushed beneath her wrecked SUV.

"An automobile is not a toy," Lindemann said during jury selection, laying out a theme of the case. ". . . A person who gets behind the wheel of a vehicle is responsible for what it does."

Keahon laid out elements of a defense for potential jurors.

"A person can be charged with a crime even though there's a lack of evidence," he said in court. He told potential jurors, "You're going to have all the sympathy in the world for Brittney Walsh and her family," but, he said, to be fair, they'd have to put that aside when reaching a verdict.

 

CORRECTION: The number of years since the last drunken driving murder trial on Long Island was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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