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Melinda Katz

Driver Who Killed 7-Year-Old Gets Probation After DA Katz Quietly Downgraded Charges

A child is dead — but this driver walked.

File photo: Kevin Duggan|

Claudia Mendez-Vasquez appeared in Queens Criminal Court in June for killing 7-year-old Dolma Naadhun.

The driver who killed 7-year-old Dolma Naadhun in Astoria last year got off with mere probation after Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz declined to prosecute her on the felony that cops charged her with, Streetsblog has learned.

Claudia Mendez-Vasquez, who fatally struck Naadhun last February, pleaded guilty on Nov. 6 to misdemeanor reckless driving in Queens Criminal Court. 

Mendez-Vasquez initially faced charges of criminally negligent homicide — a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to four years. A spokesperson for the DA, who declined to provide a name, said Katz's office had resolved the case "appropriately."

"After careful consideration of all the facts and circumstances surrounding this tragic loss of life ... this case was appropriately resolved in court," the rep said in a statement, citing the alleged "wishes of the deceased’s family."

Dolma’s family did not immediately comment on the sentencing. Her father, Tsering Wangdu, had expressed concern that a criminal case could end up separating Mendez-Vasquez from her own child, according to a family friend.

The family friend, Rebecca Van Kessel, said the justice system nevertheless let the motorist off the hook.

“One year [of] probation — I don’t know, it seems a little like a slap on the wrist,” she said.

Mendez-Vasquez, 47, of Flushing, was driving a Ford Explorer with a learner’s permit when she hit and killed Naadhun, who was crossing the street with her mother and brother at Newtown Road and 45th Street on Feb. 17. She stayed on the scene and cops arrested her on May 9

Prosecutors had also charged her with blowing through a stop sign and violating a license restriction, but she pleaded not guilty to both.

The Department of Motor Vehicles has since revoked her permit after a separate hearing, according to her attorney, David Cohen, who added that his client doesn’t want to get on the road again due to the scarring experience. 

“She doesn’t want to drive,” said Cohen. “She’s a mother and she feels terrible about what happened herself.”

Cohen suggested that Katz's office agreed with his client's defense that "unfortunately, this was a tragic accident."

Criminally negligent homicide, the lowest level of felony, still requires showing that the driver was "grossly negligent" beyond the usual "standard of care," explained Steve Vaccaro, an attorney and cyclist and pedestrian advocate.

The DA could have made that case based on the other charges, like blowing a stop sign, and the fact Naadhun crossed with two other family members, Vaccaro argued.

"In this case it’s a gross deviation," said Vaccaro. "[But] apparently in the view of prosecutors, it’s not a gross deviation."

Katz's office could have instead lowered the charge to a higher misdemeanor, such as third-degree assault, the attorney added.

Here's how daylighting affects visibility.Graphic: Transportation Alternatives

Dolma’s death triggered a wave of local street safety activism to improve visibility at intersections that are often blocked by parked cars, a design change known as daylighting. State law bars drivers from parking their cars within 20 feet of street corners, but the city has long exempted itself and made more parking available instead. 

The Department of Transportation banned parking at two of the four corners and installed a traffic signal at the Astoria intersection in the aftermath of Dolma's killing, which made a big difference, according to Van Kessel. 

“That light has transformed that corner, it is 100 percent safer,” the Queens resident said. “From 4 to 6 p.m. there is not that honking, seething chaos at that corner. It has been calmed right down.

“It’s just sad that it took that for us all to figure out how to make it happen,” she added. 

The local community board passed a resolution calling on the city to follow state law and adopt universal daylighting on the same day as Mendez-Vasquez’s first court appearance in June. 

Several more community boards and elected officials across all levels of government have since joined that growing chorus for the well-established street safety feature. 

Mayor Adams then vowed to daylight 1,000 intersections a year, but the Department of Transportation has shied away from embracing universal clearing of all corners in the city, with top officials arguing that doing so without replacing the space with physical barriers would allow drivers to make faster and more dangerous turns.

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