Martin Heidgen, the 25-year-old who was convicted of Murder in the Second Degree for driving drunk the wrong way on the Meadowbrook Parkway in Nassau County, New York, was sentenced to 18 years to life yesterday. Emotions run high as wrong-way driver gets prison sentence, (Newsday ) His actions resulted in a horrific crash with a limousine driving a wedding party, and resulted in the deaths in the limo driver, Stanley Rabinowitz, 59, and flower girl Katie Flynn, age 7.It is impossible to forget the image of Katie’s mother holding the severed head of her daughter afterwards. Let there be no mistake, this was a tragedy of untold proportions.
Having been convicted of murder, Heidgen was subject to a minimum sentence of 15 years to life, and a maximum of 25 years to life. Why he received 18 years will never be clear. But there is a far bigger issue of law wrapped up in this case. And a uglier problem of jurisprudence that is demonstrated here.
I recently wrote on the subject of bad cases making bad law. The Heidgen case is probably a more significant example of the phenomenon. This was a drunk driving case. Though it ended in a tragedy that dwarfs most, it is still a drunk driving case.Yet it was the first drunk driving case ever in the State of New York to be tried as a murder 2.This was a seismic shift, and one that should give every lawyer, and person, reason to pause.
The rationale for the elevated charge is clearly the horrible outcome of the conduct. Two dead, one a 7-year-old flower girl.There is no living, breathing person who can hear this and not shudder. You would have to be inhuman not to be moved by these deaths.
But the law does not vary by the horrific nature of the outcome, as much as we sometimes wish it would. The law must be dispassionate, as we know that the next case will not have such terrible consequences, but now that the dam has been broken, can be prosecuted as a murder. And murder, any way you turn it, is a different crime from manslaughter or vehicular homicide. It has an intent element, whether under the intentional murder subdivision, or the depraved indifference subdivision, as was used here. And drunk drivers, no matter how bad the result, do not have the intent necessary to commit murder. No matter how bad the result.
We must assume, for the sake of argument, that the Appellate Division, Second Department, will recognize and address this issue on appeal. Right? Perhaps, but there is a very real problem.
When I was chair of the Amicus committee for the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, I began looking for cases that involved important issues of law where the defense attorney was not (how to say this nicely) up to snuff. One critical historical problem with the law is that decisions were largely influenced by the quality of the lawyering, and if a lawyer represented the appellant who was not capable of making the point, we would frequently end up with very bad law that impacted everyone because of one lawyer’s ineffectiveness. Think about this. The ramifications are mind-boggling. And since the lawyer was chosen by the defendant (or his family), and limited by their financial resources or grasp of legal ability, the status of the law in the State of New York was dependent on how good a choice the defendant made.
Turning back to Heidgen, this case presents a fine example of the problem. Heidgen’s lawyer was way over his head on this case, but the opportunity to be the headliner in such a high profile case overwhelmed whatever good judgment he may have had. There are very few lawyers willing to give up the front page because they are not ready for prime time. A big win could make a career. Of course, a big loss could end one too, but nobody ever thinks of that when the TV lights are on them.They are SO important, if only for 15 minutes. Forget about the best interest of the client, it’s SHOWTIME!
This problems seems to be epidemic in Nassau County, New York. Because of its proximity to New York City, there seems to be a wealth of juicy cases. There is also a wealth of lawyers whose expertise runs the gamut of self-promotion to self-aggrandizement. There aren’t too many lawyers, unfortunately, who happen to be very good at practicing law. There are some, but not too many. And it appears that the ones who are solid, quality lawyers are not the ones being hired to do these sensationalistic cases. Uh oh.
This bodes ill for the rest of us. This bodes ill for the people of the State of New York, as all of us will be saddled with the outcome of this appeal. Drunk driving is one of those crimes that could happen to pretty much anyone. You may not be willing to say that out loud, but inside your head you know that this is true. And now, the same drunk driver who might make it home without incident could also be convicted of murder if there is a tiny little change in circumstances, resulting in a monumental change in outcome.
Houston, we’ve got a problem.