A series of drunk driving cases has inspired one of the stranger defense strategies we've heard of: lawyers for three drunk drivers are arguing that their clients were too drunk to murder, in the hope of getting their second-degree murder convictions reduced to manslaughter. "To claim now that they can hide behind their own ingestion of intoxicating substances is, quite frankly, abominable to me and I don't know why it's even being counted," dad Neil Flynn, whose 7-year-old daughter Katie was killed by drunk driver Martin Heidgen, told the Times-Union.
Heidgen, 32, drove in the wrong direction on Meadowbrook Parkway while drunk in 2005, and smashed his truck into a limousine carrying Flynn's family (who were returning from a wedding). Heidgen's blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit; he is now serving 18-year-to-life in prison. Flynn fears that if the murder conviction is overturned, he will be freed in less than 10 years.
In all three cases—two happened on Long Island, the other on Staten Island—the drivers were drunk or under the influences of drugs while driving. They were all convicted of murder for showing a "depraved indifference" to human life. But their lawyers argue that they were incapable of showing depravity because they were drunk or high: "She was extremely intoxicated and she was entirely oblivious to the danger that she was creating," argued Erica Horwitz, the attorney for Taliyah Taylor, who is serving 22 1/3 years-to-life in prison.
In 2006, Taylor was on a mix of alcohol, Ecstasy and pot when she got naked and drove 90 MPH in a friend's car without headlights on Forest Avenue in Staten Island. She fatally struck 41-year-old defense attorney Larry Simon, then drove through a red light and struck a car, injuring two people. Prosecutors argued that she was "exhilarated" by the joyride: "She didn't care who she was hurting," the prosecutor said. "She just was having...fun."
The third case in which this defense is being used is that of Franklin McPherson, 26, who drove his Lexus the wrong way on the Southern State Parkway in 2007, and crashed into a car driven by Leslie Burgess, 44, killing him. McPherson's blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit; he is serving 25 years-to-life.
Associate Judge Robert Smith listened to the arguments: the defense argued that McPherson was "oblivious" because he was drunk, and didn't make any attempt to avoid the collision, while prosecutors maintained that he purposefully stayed in the wrong lane at the same speed, and acted deliberately. "I think pretty much everyone agrees that if somebody deliberately goes the wrong way on a highway, you've got a pretty good case for depraved indifference," said Associate Judge Robert Smith. "That's a very, very strange thing to do. When someone is going the wrong way on a highway, you almost have to assume he is suicidal or he is so drunk that he doesn't know what he's doing. How do you prove that this guy did know what he was doing?"
Flynn summed up his feelings to the Times-Union: "Voluntary intoxication may now be a defense to murder, and I think that's absurd," he said. "I think it's dangerous for the people of the state of New York. I think it's a travesty of justice for my family and my daughter and the other victims in these cases. These people chose to do what they did."