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Spellman Verdict Highlights Continued Weakness of Drunk Driving Cases

2:23 PM EST on December 7, 2012

A jury in the Bronx on Thursday found former NYPD detective Kevin Spellman guilty of second degree manslaughter for the death of Drane Nikac, the 66-year-old woman he hit with a government-issued sedan in Kingsbridge on the morning of October 30, 2009.

Spellman, who prosecutors said has a history of drinking and driving, was acquitted of the two top charges against him, aggravated vehicular homicide and first degree vehicular manslaughter, because jurors did not believe evidence that he was intoxicated at the time of the collision. This according to court records and the Riverdale Press, which covered the weeks-long trial from start to finish.

The state sabotaged its case against Spellman long before the crash. As is the wont of suspected drunk drivers in New York, Spellman refused a breath test at the scene. A sample obtained five hours later indicated a blood alcohol content of .21, but Spellman's attorney Peter Brill convinced the jury that the test results could not be trusted. From the Times:

"The jury heard testimony that more than five hours after the incident Spellman’s blood alcohol level was nearly three times higher than the legal limit," according to a statement from the office of the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson. "Witnesses also testified that the traffic light was red when Spellman’s car approached the intersection and struck the victim. Other evidence examined by the jury included beer cans found in the defendant’s vehicle as well as the presence of the defendant’s DNA on one of the open cans."

"They clearly didn’t buy the DAs proof that he had a significant amount of alcohol in his blood … in the end they made a determination somehow that he was still reckless, even though they didn’t believe he was drunk," said Brill.

Brill's professed exasperation is telling: How could a motorist be judged reckless just for running someone over? According to the Press, Brill "noted that the charges were so complex that they would have been confusing even to a lawyer."

Though his case prompted new policies to expedite blood evidence collection, since the day Spellman slammed a city-owned Chevrolet into Nikac, unreliable evidence of intoxication has torpedoed at least two other cases against accused drunken killers.

After he struck 6-year-old Zhaneya Butcher as she ran toward an ice cream truck in Jamaica, Kent Lowrie pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received five years probation, a $1,000 fine, and a six-month license revocation. According to reports, prosecutors feared Lowrie was not drunk enough to secure a manslaughter conviction.

Criminal charges were dropped against Anthony Webb because, among other reasons, police had failed to calibrate the machine that was used to test his breath after he hit Brooklyn pedestrian Clara Heyworth.

Spellman could get a prison term of up to 15 years when he is sentenced in February. It's unlikely, but possible, that he could be sent home with no jail time. He is currently free on bond.

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