Why Must a Driver Be Drunk or Fleeing Cops to Be Prosecuted for Killing?

On Tuesday, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced the sentencing of Dyson Williams, the driver who killed Mary Celine Graham while attempting to evade police.

The killers of Mary Celine Graham and Karen Schmeer are behind bars, but only because they were being chased by NYPD. Karen Schmeer photo: Garret Savage

On June 22, 2010, police investigating a string of gunpoint robberies stopped a minivan occupied by Williams and William Robbins near W. 142nd Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, according to a Vance press release. As officers questioned Robbins outside the vehicle, Williams, who was in the passenger seat, got behind the wheel and drove away.

Police reportedly pursued with lights and sirens. At W. 122nd Street and Lenox Avenue, Williams collided with another vehicle and careened into a group of people. Four bystanders were injured. Sister Mary Celine Graham, an 83-year-old nun, was killed.

Williams was charged with murder, along with other charges related to the crash and the robberies. In May he pled guilty to second degree murder, robbery and assault. On Tuesday Williams was sentenced to 17 years to life. Robbins pled guilty to first degree robbery and on June 21 was sentenced to 15 years.

“The sentences imposed on these two defendants hold them accountable for the tragic aftermath of their reckless actions,” said Vance in a written statement.

Graham’s death was the second case prosecuted by Vance involving a pedestrian death during an NYPD car chase. In January 2010, Karen Schmeer was crossing Broadway at 90th Street when she was struck by David McKie. McKie was 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. Karen Schmeer was 39.

McKie was initially charged with murder, but Vance’s office reportedly backed off the murder charge following a decision by the Court of Appeals that reversed a conviction in a similar case. McKie ultimately pled to manslaughter and last September was sentenced to five to 15 years.

As we wrote in our summary of Vance’s record on vehicular crimes, the occasional high-profile prosecution stands in contrast to the many cases that are not pursued. Though he has brought charges for driving without a license and leaving the scene, only once has Vance prosecuted a motorist for causing the death of a pedestrian or cyclist in a crash that did not involve alcohol or a police chase. Prosecutions by district attorneys in other boroughs follow much the same pattern.

While running for district attorney, Vance promised to challenge the “rule of two.” Instead, it seems he has given it a whole new meaning: to be prosecuted for killing with a car, a sober driver must have first committed a non-vehicular crime.

  • Although do remember that even if you are drunk, you may not be charged with anything, simply because…someone help me here…
    http://www.streetsblog.org/2012/06/11/husband-sues-nypd-for-botched-investigation-into-death-of-clara-heyworth/

  • Noah Berland

    What most infuriates me about this logic is that cops are not supposed to engage in high speed pursuits for this very reason. Williams is certainly guilty, but the cops also in my opinion have some culpability. So the only time that a person who is sober (Though we all know even drunk drivers aren’t always prosecuted) gets prosecuted is when the cops seem to also be at least partly to blame.

  • Padrles

    The answer is fairly simple: most automobile-caused deaths to not involve facts that make out murder, or even manslaughter.  Two particular classes, almost by definition, do:  when the death is a result of intoxication, or when the death is the result of the commission of some other felony.  Leaving the scene, for instance, does not make the death murder or manslaughter, nor does a “simple” accident, even one in which the driver may have had some fault.  The exception of course, is where recklessness, or in some cases criminal negligence, can be proven.  

    There is, of course, another answer, and I apologize in advance, because I understand the passionate views held by many on this site.  That answer is that a prosecutor must balance and rank different types of prosecutable crimes, and vehicular deaths, particularly where there is, at most negligence, is simply not seen as morally culpable as other types of deaths. 

  • “Two particular classes, almost by definition, do:  when the death is a result of intoxication, or when the death is the result of the commission of some other felony.”

    The definitions of what? Drinking alcohol and murder? There is no literal overlap. It is a reasonable, ethical, social decision we have made to derive intent to do harm from the actual intent to just get wasted. Other societies see it differently. Some have made the reasonable choice to view many more things than drinking alcohol and fleeing the police (who are illegally chasing you) as intent. They see the decision to speed, and the decision to not pay sufficient attention, as intentional. You can limit your own figurative use of intent to boozing and bonnie and clyde activities, but you won’t convince anyone that just those two cases are some kind of physical absolute.

  • Station44025

    If I were a hit man or a gang member or someone else who needed to kill people for a living, I would definitely pick a car as my weapon of choice. We know the police will barely investigate, and the likelihood of prosecution is minimal. It makes me think of that scene in Take the Money and Run when Woody Allen tries to run a woman over in her house with an Austin Mini.

  • Joe R.

    @2d1f4485f4071d40973ef0f25d75ed14:disqus My thoughts exactly. I’ll even go one better. If a loved one were mowed down by a negligent driver, and the police do nothing as usual, then the bereaved family could in turn use a motor vehicle to enact revenge on the offending motorist, with little probability anyone involved would do any serious time.

    Anyone here remember the incident where a motorist killed John Gotti’s son? Not that two wrongs make a right, but I guess he realized from the start he would get no justice pursuing things through normal legal channels. Here’s the story for those who are unfamiliar with it: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,478124,00.html

    Ironically, a gun instead of a car was the weapon of choice.

  • Rhubarbpie

    Noah Berland raises a key point. High-speed chases are almost always a tremendously bad idea, especially in a city like New York. Someone steals some medicine and a woman dies? Inexcusable.