For over twenty years, I have prosecuted and defended thousands of DUI cases. Defending those charged with DUI (“drunk driving”) continues to make up a significant portion of my practice. Over the years, I have made some novel arguments in front of countless judges and juries. Recently I heard one that pales in comparison to any that I’ve made. This one has been correctly deemed controversial and novel. First, here are the facts.
A 7-year-old girl along with a limousine driver were killed after Martin Heidgen, who was drunk after a 10 hour drinking binge, drove his pickup truck down a NY parkway, causing the tragedy.
Taliyah Taylor was high on ecstasy when she got into a vehicle and sped 80 mph without her headlights on. Naked and impaired, Ms. Taylor then tragically slammed into a pedestrian, killing him instantly.
Franklin McPherson got himself drunk at a NY nightclub and then sped his car down the street in the wrong direction. He then collided with a Jeep and killed a man.
All three drunk driving defendants went to trial and all three were convicted of second-degree murder. Prosecutors successfully argued that each of the accused had shown a “depraved indifference to human life.” All three convictions were consolidated before New York State’s highest court for the purpose of analyzing whether their attorney’s controversial and novel argument should reverse their client’s convictions. The lawyers are passionately arguing that their clients were too intoxicated for them to have showed the required “depraved indifference” to human life. So, could being too drunk be a viable and meritorious defense in DUI and vehicular homicide cases?
One of the attorneys argued that their prosecutors failed to prove that her client, whose blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit, knew he was going the wrong way as he was driving down the highway. She further alleged that prosecutors failed to show that he consciously disregarded the risk. In lay mans terms, “He was way too blitzed and didn’t have a clue as to what he was doing.”
While a very novel defense, I think that prosecutors will come out on the winning side of this argument once the decision is handed down by the high court next month. The entire purpose for empaneling jurors to decide cases is to determine what the facts are. In each of the three cases in which convictions were obtained, prosecutors successfully persuaded the jurors to unanimously find that each of the defendants had shown a “depraved indifference to human life.” Jurors determined that each defendant was sober enough to understand his/her actions, even if that really wasn’t the case. Almost invariably appellate courts will not disturb factual findings made by jurors. Additionally, I am certain that judges would be wary of ruling in the defendants’ favor as a matter of policy as it would provide a legal excuse for those drunk drivers who are extremely wasted and cause horrific accidents.
I don’t blame the attorneys for making the argument. They have to argue something on appeal. Their job, like mine, is to do all they possibly can to get the best possible outcome under challenging circumstances. In this case, I predict their argument comes up short.