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Bronx Motorist Convicted of DWI, But Not Manslaughter, in Pedestrian Death

9:47 AM EST on December 18, 2013

A jury in the Bronx determined a motorist was impaired by alcohol and drugs when he struck and killed a pedestrian in 2011, but the jury acquitted the driver of manslaughter.

Thomas Riley, 23, was crossing East Fordham Road near Bathgate Avenue at around 4:20 a.m. on March 20, 2011, when he was hit by a minivan driven by 48-year-old Seth Johnson, according to a Post story published the day after the crash.

Riley was a barber who had a young son, the Post reported. “My family is now torn apart because a drunk driver took his life away," said Riley's sister.

Court records indicate Johnson was charged by Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson with manslaughter, homicide, speeding, reckless driving, leaving the scene, and separate counts of driving while under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

The reckless driving and speeding charges were dismissed. Last week a jury found Johnson guilty on one count of driving drunk and one count of driving while impaired by drugs. The jury acquitted on the manslaughter and homicide charges.

"As a prosecutor, I accept the verdict of the jury," said Bronx vehicular crime chief Joe McCormack. "We brought what we felt were appropriate charges, and we did the best we could trying the case."

To sustain a charge of vehicular homicide, prosecutors in New York State must be able to prove that impairment caused a motorist to operate a vehicle in a manner that caused death. Given the tendency of courts to side with motorists who kill, even while driving drunk, this is no small feat.

Four months after the death of Thomas Riley, Nassau County pedestrian Eddie Cotto was struck and killed by Robert Core. Though Core reportedly had a blood alcohol level of .17, a judge dismissed a manslaughter charge on the grounds that Cotto was also intoxicated. Core was convicted of DWI and aggravated DWI, and given a maximum sentence of one year.

George Anderson was speeding through Tribeca at 60 mph when he struck Florence Cioffi in January 2008. He fled the scene and later refused a Breathalyzer test. Charged with vehicular manslaughter, homicide and leaving the scene, Anderson was able to plead to DWI and leaving the scene only, and was sentenced to 16 days in jail and 250 hours of community service. According to reports, the attorney for Cioffi’s family suspected that prosecutors made the plea deal because Cioffi was intoxicated when Anderson ran her over.

Off-duty NYPD officer Andrew Kelly admitted he was drunk when he hit Brooklyn pedestrian Vionique Valnord in 2009. Kelly pleaded guilty to second degree vehicular manslaughter, and was sentenced to 90 days in jail, five years probation and a one-year license suspension. Kelly's attorney, with help from the Post and the Daily News, maintained that Valnord caused her own death because she had been drinking at a wedding before Kelly killed her.

A victim does not have to be inebriated, or even old enough to drink, for an accused drunken killer to escape serious penalty. Queens prosecutors said Kent Lowrie was legally intoxicated when he hit and killed 6-year-old Zhaneya Butcher in 2011. Lowrie pleaded guilty to manslaughter and got five years probation, a $1,000 fine, and a six-month license revocation. Reports said prosecutors feared Lowrie was not drunk enough to secure a manslaughter conviction in court.

Seth Johnson was convicted on unclassified misdemeanors and is subject to a maximum sentence of a year in jail. He is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Nicholas J. Iacovetta on February 7.

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