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People v. Williams

Supreme Court of New York, Second Department

May 31, 2017

The People of the State of New York, respondent,
v.
Lloyd Williams, appellant. Ind. No. 1395/11

          Leon H. Tracy, Jericho, NY, for appellant, and appellant pro se.

          Madeline Singas, District Attorney, Mineola, NY (Judith R. Sternberg and Jason R. Richards of counsel), for respondent.

          REINALDO E. RIVERA, J.P., JOHN M. LEVENTHAL, SHERI S. ROMAN, HECTOR D. LASALLE, JJ.

          DECISION & ORDER

         Appeal by the defendant from a judgment of the Supreme Court, Nassau County (Robbins, J.), rendered April 17, 2013, convicting him of murder in the second degree, aggravated vehicular homicide (four counts), manslaughter in the second degree, vehicular manslaughter in the first degree (three counts), aggravated vehicular assault (three counts), vehicular assault in the first degree (three counts), assault in the second degree, aggravated operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol as a felony, operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol as a felony (two counts), driving while ability impaired by drugs, driving while ability impaired by the combined influence of drugs or of alcohol and any drug or drugs, aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle in the first degree, and reckless driving, upon a jury verdict, and imposing sentence.

         ORDERED that the judgment is modified, on the law, by vacating the convictions of manslaughter in the second degree, vehicular manslaughter in the first degree, vehicular assault in the first degree, aggravated operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol as a felony, operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol as a felony, driving while ability impaired by drugs, driving while ability impaired by the combined influence of drugs or of alcohol and any drug or drugs, aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle in the first degree, and reckless driving, vacating the sentences imposed thereon, and dismissing those counts of the indictment; as so modified, the judgment is affirmed.

         On the evening of June 17, 2011, the defendant smoked marijuana until he was high, then went out with his friend, Laron Harrison, to celebrate the defendant's birthday. The defendant drank alcohol at the Phase Bar (hereinafter the bar) in Freeport into the early morning hours of June 18, 2011, became intoxicated, and was removed from the bar by a bouncer. The defendant and Harrison started a fistfight with the bouncer outside the bar, and a shot was fired from a gun. Although it is unclear from the record who fired the shot, the defendant and Harrison fled after the shot was fired. The bouncer saw the defendant drive away from the parking lot in his vehicle at approximately 3:00 a.m. A bystander and a plainclothes detective both saw Harrison get into the defendant's vehicle on a nearby street.

         The detective followed the defendant's vehicle in an unmarked police car with lights and sirens activated through a residential neighborhood for approximately two miles. The detective testified that he observed the defendant consistently exceed the speed limit of 30 miles per hour, traveling at speeds between 60 and 70 miles per hour. The defendant ran several red lights and stop signs, through various intersections. The detective testified that the defendant did not slow down as he approached these red lights and stop signs. The detective described one of the intersections as a major thoroughfare, running east and west with four lanes of traffic, with a large tree blocking the view of oncoming traffic.

         According to the detective, the defendant accelerated away from him while proceeding eastbound on Pine Street, a side street, reaching a speed of over 80 miles per hour. At that point, the detective stopped pursuing the defendant. Shortly thereafter, the defendant collided with a vehicle operated by Chad Whethers at the intersection of Pine Street and Guy Lombardo Avenue, a main road in Freeport. The impact split Whethers' vehicle in two, instantly killing him. A traffic engineer testified that the traffic light was generally green on Guy Lombardo Avenue, on which Whethers had been proceeding, and red on Pine Street, on which the defendant had been proceeding, unless a traffic detector or push button was activated, in which case it took at least six seconds for the light to change. Video footage from a local store located on a corner of the intersection revealed that another vehicle traveling on Guy Lombardo Avenue went through the intersection at Pine Street, only seconds before the defendant's vehicle collided with Whethers' vehicle. Notably, no skid marks were observed in the area of impact.

         After the impact, the defendant's vehicle came to rest on the front lawn of a Pine Street residence about 150 feet east of the intersection. A resident, awakened by the sound of the crash, observed the defendant limp down an alleyway toward the back of the residence. The defendant was found by another detective crouching in a basement stairwell in the rear of the residence. According to that detective, the defendant's speech was slurred, his eyes were bloodshot, and he smelled of alcohol. Harrison remained in the front passenger seat of the defendant's vehicle and had to be extricated from the vehicle by the fire department. He suffered a cervical spine fracture as a result of the accident.

         The defendant was arrested and transported to the hospital. A blood sample taken from him at 4:16 a.m., just over one hour after the accident, indicated that his blood alcohol content (hereinafter BAC) was 0.25% and that he tested positive for marijuana. At 9:45 a.m., the police obtained a second blood sample from the defendant pursuant to a court order and that blood sample indicated that the defendant's BAC was 0.13% and that he tested positive for marijuana.

         At trial, the defendant invoked the defense of justification by necessity (Penal Law § 35.05[2]), claiming that he was fleeing from the bouncer who was shooting at him and Harrison, and that he was also rushing Harrison to a hospital because Harrison told him that he had been shot. The defendant was convicted by a jury of murder in the second degree (depraved indifference murder), four counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, manslaughter in the second degree, three counts of vehicular manslaughter in the first degree, three counts of aggravated vehicular assault, three counts of vehicular assault in the first degree, assault in the second degree, aggravated operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol as a felony, two counts of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol as a felony, driving while ability impaired by drugs, driving while ability impaired by the combined influence of drugs or of alcohol and any drug or drugs, aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle in the first degree, and reckless driving. He was acquitted of assault in the first degree (depraved indifference assault).

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution (see People v Contes, 60 N.Y.2d 620, 621), we find that it was legally sufficient to disprove the defendant's justification defense beyond a reasonable doubt (see Penal Law § 35.15[2]; People v Craig, 78 N.Y.2d 616), and to prove the defendant's guilt of murder in the second degree (depraved indifference murder) and four counts of aggravated vehicular homicide (Penal Law §§ 125.25[2]; 125.14[1], [2][b]; [3], [5]) beyond a reasonable doubt. Moreover, upon the exercise of our factual review power (see CPL 470.15[5]), we are satisfied that the verdict of guilt as to those crimes was not against the weight of the evidence (see People v Danielson, 9 N.Y.3d 342, 348; People v Romero, 7 N.Y.3d 633, 644-645).

         A person is guilty of depraved indifference murder when, "[u]nder circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, [such person] recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby causes the death of another person" (Penal Law § 125.25[2]). Depraved indifference is a culpable mental state which "is best understood as an utter disregard for the value of human life-a willingness to act not because one intends harm, but because one simply doesn't care whether grievous harm results or not" (People v Feingold, 7 N.Y.3d 288, 296 [internal quotation marks omitted]). Thus, "a depraved and utterly indifferent actor is someone who does not care if another is injured or killed" (id. at 296 [internal quotation marks omitted]). "The mens rea of depraved indifference to human life can, like any other mens rea, be proved by circumstantial evidence" (id.).

         Here, the evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant recklessly engaged in conduct which created a grave risk of death to another person. First, the defendant was knowingly driving with a revoked driver license. Second, the defendant was driving while intoxicated with a BAC of approximately 0.25%, and high on marijuana. Third, the defendant engaged in a high-speed chase with the police for approximately two miles. Fourth, during this chase, the defendant sped through narrow streets of a residential neighborhood, ...


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