In 2009, Jose Maldonado drove a stolen minivan through red lights on Greenpoint's Manhattan Avenue, smashed into parked vehicles, and struck 37-year-old pedestrian Violetta Krzyzak with such force that her body landed a block away. But Maldonado, who was fleeing police at speeds in excess of 70 mph, apparently swerved to avoid some obstacles, and that was enough for a panel of state appellate judges to rule 5-1 that he didn't show "depraved indifference," and therefore couldn't be convicted of murder.
"Defendant drove in the wrong lane for brief periods of time in order to pass other cars, not as part of a deadly game," the majority opinion states [PDF]. "He immediately returned to the proper lane once clear of congestion in order to avoid hitting other vehicles."
As a result, Maldonado's murder conviction and sentence of 20 years to life has been downgraded to second degree manslaughter, and he must be re-sentenced. A manslaughter conviction carries a sentence of up to 15 years.
"Once again, a person is dead because a defendant, concerned about being arrested for theft, led police on a high-speed chase through residential neighborhoods," Judge Eugene Pigott writes in his dissent. "And, once again, the majority treats this crime with unfathomable and unjustified leniency."
"Swerving in and out of traffic, including the maneuvers preceding the fatal impact, merely demonstrates defendant's desire to avoid apprehension, not to avoid pedestrians," Pigott writes.
Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice, who has been on the forefront of prosecuting dangerous drivers, told Streetsblog that this decision could make DAs even more reluctant to prosecute dangerous drivers than they already are.
“The Court of Appeals’ decision in Maldonado is distressing to anyone who recognizes that a wildly reckless driver, bent on fleeing the police, can be absolutely depraved toward innocent people that are in his way,” Rice said. "It’s time for the legislature to address the issue and make it clear that the outrageously dangerous driving represented in Maldonado is not simply reckless, it is depraved. And when someone dies as a result, it should be nothing short of murder.”