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People v. Heidgen

New York Court of Appeals

November 21, 2013

The People & c., Respondent,
v.
Martin Heidgen, Appellant. No. 176 The People & c., Respondent,
v.
Taliyah Taylor, Appellant. No. 177 The People & c., Respondent,
v.
Franklin McPherson, Appellant. Ind. No. 1910N/05

Case No. 174

Jillian S. Harrington, for appellant.

Maureen McCormick, for respondent.

District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, amicus curiae.

Case No. 176

Erica Horwitz, for appellant.

Anne Grady, for respondent.

District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, amicus curiae.

Case No. 177

Jonathan I. Edelstein, for appellant.

Maureen McCormick, for respondent.

District Attorneys Association of the State of NewYork, amicus curiae.

OPINION

Lippman Chief Judge

Defendants in these three appeals challenge their convictions of depraved indifference murder. Each defendant drove in an outrageously reckless manner while intoxicated by alcohol or drugs and caused the death of at least one other person. Defendants maintain that the evidence was not legally sufficient to support their convictions —- specifically, that there was insufficient proof that they had the requisite mental state of depraved indifference. Although intoxicated driving cases that present circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life are likely to be few and far between, we find that the evidence in each of these unusually egregious cases was legally sufficient to support the convictions.

People v Heidgen

At about 4:30 pm on July 1, 2005, defendant Martin Heidgen met a friend for drinks at a Manhattan bar. When the friend left about three hours later, defendant, who remained at the bar, had already consumed six beers. Later that night, between 11:00 pm and midnight, defendant drove to a party at a friend's house in Merrick. Defendant proceeded to consume several additional alcoholic beverages at the party. Although he appeared to be intoxicated or "buzzed, " defendant was not unsteady on his feet or slurring his words. Defendant left the party after about an hour and a half, without saying goodbye. It was not only well-known among their group of friends that there would always be a place to stay or a designated driver available if necessary, but one friend testified that she had had a specific conversation with defendant to that effect about a week prior to the party.

Just before 2:00 am, witnesses saw defendant driving north on the southbound side of the Meadowbrook Parkway. One witness testified that she pulled over when she saw defendant's headlights coming at her and honked her horn three times, but that defendant did not deviate from the center lane or reduce his speed, which she estimated at about 70 to 75 miles per hour. A second witness testified that, when he saw defendant's pickup truck approaching, the witness drifted slightly to the left and that "it appeared as if [defendant's] car was drifting with me." After defendant passed him, the witness looked in his rearview mirror and observed that defendant's brake lights were not illuminated. The witness estimated defendant's speed at between 70 and 80 miles per hour.

A third witness testified that he had been driving his motorcycle on the northbound side of the Meadowbrook Parkway, when he saw defendant's vehicle on the wrong side of the road. He testified that he rode next to defendant -— separated by the guard rail -— and that they were traveling at about 70 miles per hour. Despite the witness's "loud" motorcycle at his side, defendant only looked straight ahead and appeared "very intent at driving." The witness lost sight of defendant's car when the guard rail was replaced by a median of trees and bushes.

After traveling about 2½ miles on the wrong side of the parkway, past multiple "wrong way" signs and the backs of several other road signs, defendant crashed head-on into a limousine that was bringing several family members home from a wedding. Both the driver, Stanley Rabinowitz, and seven-year-old passenger, Katie Flynn, were killed on impact. Several other family members sustained grievous physical injuries. One of the passengers in the limousine, Christopher Tangney, a former Nassau County Police Officer, testified to what he had observed through the vehicle's windshield. Tangney testified that they saw defendant coming at them, but that Rabinowitz was unable to move out of the left lane because there was another car next to them. Tangney estimated defendant's speed at about 65 miles per hour and observed that, when the limousine attempted to move to the right, defendant "seemed to follow us, the headlights."

Reverend Steed Davidson testified that he had been driving in the center lane at about 55 miles per hour and that the limousine had just finished passing him on the left when the crash occurred. Davidson testified that he saw defendant's headlights coming toward him, but was unable to react before impact. Davidson did not see defendant's vehicle swerve or slow down before the crash.

Defendant was arrested at the scene [1] and transported to the hospital. He smelled of alcohol and was generally characterized as either unresponsive or incoherent by police officers and medical professionals. At the request of the State Police, the emergency room nurse obtained a blood sample from defendant which revealed a blood alcohol concentration of.28%. [2]

Dr. Closson, a forensic toxicologist, testified for the prosecution that defendant's blood alcohol concentration meant that he would have had difficulty processing stimuli in the environment, that his cognitive abilities would have been impeded and that he could have had blurry, "tunnel vision, " which would have reduced his peripheral vision. The blood alcohol concentration could have contributed to the disregard of substantial, or even grave, risks. Closson testified that a "divided attention activity, " such as driving, would have presented difficulties because persons under the influence of alcohol are more likely to focus on one task than on performing several activities simultaneously. In addition, defendant's reaction time would have been decreased —- although it would have decreased as a matter of seconds, rather than minutes, and would not have caused him to fail to perceive or react to his surroundings at all. Dr. Closson testified that the 0.28% reading meant that defendant had approximately 14 drinks in his system at the time of the test, but gave a "conservative estimate" that defendant had consumed at least 20 drinks in all.

Defendant was advised that he was under arrest at about 12:30 pm on July 2, although at that time he was not told that two people had been killed in the crash. Defendant told police that he had gotten into an argument over the telephone with his ex-girlfriend in Arkansas and that he went into "self-destruct mode." He related that he was "very upset and depressed" and had consumed a fifth of "Old Parr Scotch" before going out and driving around. Defendant complained that he had financial problems and that everything was going wrong since he had moved to New York from Arkansas. He also told the officers that his grandmother had recently passed away. In response to multiple police inquiries on the subject, defendant denied that he had been trying to hurt himself.

A letter that defendant wrote to one of his friends from prison explained that the statements he had made to the police were false. He noted that he had not spoken with his ex-girlfriend at all that night and that he did not have any financial problems. In addition, he pointed out that portions of his statement were lines from the movies Ocean's Eleven and Pulp Fiction. He further stated that the empty bottle of "Old Parr Scotch" in his apartment had been empty for months prior to the accident. Defendant indicated that he constructed this story in order to protect the hosts of the party and to portray himself as a person "worthy of leniency."

The defense retained an engineer, Steven Schneider, who was qualified as an accident reconstruction expert [3]. Schneider calculated that the limousine had been traveling at 49 miles per hour on impact. He further estimated that defendant's vehicle had been traveling somewhere between 27 and 38 miles per hour. The People did not call an expert and instead relied upon the testimony of lay eyewitnesses regarding defendant's speed.

The jury was instructed that, when determining whether defendant had acted with depraved indifference to human life, it should consider whether he was too intoxicated to be able to form the requisite mental state. Defendant was convicted after trial of two counts of murder in the second degree, three counts of assault in the first degree and two counts of operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. The court denied defendant's post-trial motion to set aside the verdict, rejecting defendant's arguments asserting juror ...


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