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Suffolk trial starts in murder case involving wrong-way driver

Christopher O'Brien, of Sound Beach, was charged with

Christopher O'Brien, of Sound Beach, was charged with driving while intoxicated after police said he crashed head-on into another vehicle, killing the driver, in a wrong-way crash on Sunrise Highway in Yaphank on Dec. 23, 2015. Credit: Ed Betz; James Carbone

For miles, a drunk Sound Beach man appeared to target oncoming motorists as he drove the wrong way through dense fog on three different roads before he finally killed an Aquebogue man going to work, a Suffolk prosecutor told a judge Tuesday in Central Islip.

“This is a case about choices, your honor,” Assistant District Attorney Marc Lindemann said in his opening statement to state Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho in the trial of Christopher O’Brien, 55.

O’Brien, who waived his right to a jury, crashed his Audi A4 into a Toyota Corolla driven by Thomas D’Eletto, 57, a project engineer in Nassau County, before dawn on Dec. 23, 2015.

O’Brien is charged with second-degree murder, a rare charge in vehicular deaths. But Lindemann said O’Brien’s behavior that morning was so extreme that the charge fits.

He said he will show that O’Brien had a blood-alcohol level of 0.21 percent — almost three times the legal threshold of 0.08 percent — and also was high on cocaine. Before O’Brien began racing east in the westbound lanes of Sunrise Highway, Lindemann said he’d driven the wrong way on Mill Road and Sills Road in Yaphank, forcing drivers off the road.

Then he went the wrong way on Sunrise Highway, “ignoring blaring horns and flashing lights” from other motorists, Lindemann said. Several drivers say he appeared to track them, as if deliberately trying to hit them or run them off the road, he said.

Finally, he hit D’Eletto, breaking his skull, ribs and spine, Lindemann said.

With no jury present, defense attorney Scott Gross of Hauppauge presented a legalistic defense to the murder charge, not contesting that his client caused D’Eletto’s death or that he was intoxicated to some extent. But he challenged the 0.21 percent reading, arguing it is the result of reverse extrapolation, a method that estimates blood alcohol content at the time of the crash based on a later reading.

“It is the functional equivalent of a wild guess,” Gross said.

He also said there is no evidence of O’Brien’s state of mind that morning. Prosecutors must prove O’Brien displayed depraved indifference to human life to support the murder charge.

“We have no idea what was on my client’s mind that night,” Gross said. “If you have to assume it, we don’t know it.”

Gross suggested the dense fog that morning had more to do with the crash than his client’s state of mind.

“I’m not asking for a pass, and Chris isn’t either,” Gross said. He suggested a more appropriate charge for what happened was second-degree manslaughter.

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