New York’s Highest Court “Systematically Decriminalizing” Vehicular Killings

The manslaughter plea of David McKie, sentenced earlier this month for running down Manhattan pedestrian Karen Schmeer as he fled police following a petty theft, points to a trend in vehicular crimes law that is resulting in lighter sentences for drivers who kill.

A Court of Appeals decision in a separate case resulted in a reduced charge for the man who killed Karen Schmeer, and will make it more difficult for other victims of traffic crime to find justice. Photo: Garret Savage

On the evening of January 29, 2010, McKie was behind the wheel of a Dodge racing north on Broadway after he and two other men, also in the car, shoplifted over-the-counter cold medication from an Upper West Side pharmacy. Schmeer was on her way home when McKie struck her as she attempted to cross Broadway at 90th Street. She was 39.

McKie was initially charged with murder, but in July prosecutors from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance allowed him to plead to manslaughter. On September 7 he was sentenced to five to 15 years. Vance’s office reportedly backed off the murder charge in light of a recent decision by the Court of Appeals — the state’s highest court — that reversed a conviction in a similar case.

In October 2004, according to court documents [PDF], Michael Edward Prindle led police on a high-speed chase through Rochester after he and another man were caught trying to steal two snow plows. Prindle, who was driving, subsequently rammed another vehicle, killing a passenger. Prindle was convicted of murder, but last February the Court of Appeals overturned the verdict.

From the Prindle ruling:

[W]e conclude that the evidence adduced at trial does not support the jury’s conclusion that defendant evinced a depraved indifference to human life … Here, at most, the evidence adduced was legally sufficient to support a finding of reckless manslaughter.

“The assessment of the effect of Prindle by the Manhattan district attorney’s office is regrettably correct,” says Maureen McCormick, Nassau County ADA and traffic justice trailblazer. “The Court of Appeals decisions in recent years appear to be systematically decriminalizing vehicular cases. Oddly it comes as the legislature — ever so slowly — is attempting to better define and prioritize these cases, at least to a degree.”

The ramifications are significant, as the Prindle decision is one of several to demonstrate bias against cases in which crimes are committed with cars. Last week, the State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division upheld the murder conviction of Martin Heidgen, the drunk motorist who in 2005 killed limousine driver Stanley Rabinowitz and 7-year-old Katie Flynn as Flynn’s family returned home from a Long Island wedding. The case made national headlines due the gruesome nature of the crash, the unquestionable innocence of its young victim, and the vigor with which McCormick’s boss, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, pursued it. But with Heidgen’s legal team set to mount another challenge in the Court of Appeals, the ultimate outcome is in doubt.

To give prosecutors a better shot at getting justice for victims like Karen Schmeer, McCormick says it’s up to Albany to correct loopholes in state traffic law — as the Court of Appeals itself has suggested. “In a common law society it is incumbent that the legislature reacts swiftly to decisions that do not represent the intent or spirit of the legislation that the Court purports to interpret. That does not really happen here with the speed necessary to be effective.”

“Much needs to change,” adds McCormick. “We keep working toward that change.”