Heidgen: Bad Law Distinguished

One of my  earliest posts at SJ was about the horrific case of Martin Heidgen, who plowed his pickup into wedding party limo and killed two people, including the 7-year-old flower girl, Katie Flynn.  Heidgen, then 25, was totally drunk.  

Heidgen was the first in a series of cases prosecuting drunk driving deaths as murder.

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.

By decision issued September 13, the Appellate Division, Second Department,  affirmed the conviction for two counts of murder.  This decision,  remarkably long in coming because of inexplicable delay in the submission of appellant’s brief, come after other decisions that reflected this court’s rejection of the underlying theory:

Much has happened since Heidgen’s conviction.  The case of Alberto Valencia was decided by the Appellate Division, Second Department, the same court that will hear Heidgen’s appeal.  There, the court rejected the “depraved indifference” theory of assault upon which the conviction rested, the same theory (though applied to second degree murder) that was used against Heidgen.  Valencia was sentenced on February 23, 2007, five days before Heidgen. 

Yet the affirmance here seems to be a carve out, where the majority relied upon highly specific facts to reach its result:

The majority concludes that when viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, a reasonable jury could conclude that the defendant was aware that he was driving “the wrong way and deliberately chose to continue to proceed in the northbound direction, against traffic, without regard for the grave danger to himself and others traveling on the parkway that night,” and that given “the defendant’s statement to the police that he was in a self-destructive’ mode, it was reasonable for the jury to find that he possessed the requisite mens rea at the time that the impact with the limousine occurred.”

Specific to this case, the majority relied on the fact that three cars passed Heidgen, who was traveling he wrong way down the Meadowbrook Parkway, and honked to alert him.  He kept going.  His statement to police, that he was in a “self-destructive mode,” was used to suggest that he was conscious of what he was doing, but that he was suicidal. 

To the majority’s credit, they have made great efforts to make their affirmance so fact-specific as to avoid screwing up a body of law in order to make sure Heidgen remains convicted of murder.  As the lone dissenter, Jeffrey Cohen, asserts, however, it’s not, and shouldn’t be, the law.

I disagree, and conclude that no rational or reasonable juror could infer that the defendant was suicidal, and acted with depraved indifference to an appreciated grave risk, merely because he stated that he was in a “self-destructive” mode. Thus, the evidence was legally insufficient to support the essential elements of murder in the second degree or assault in the first degree. It was not established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was aware of the danger of his conduct, aware of the grave and high probability of injury and death his conduct portended, and wholly indifferent to any such probability.

Justice Cohen picks apart the facts upon which the majority relies, turning them from rationale to rationalization.  This is a fascinating dissection, as it’s the sort of detailed parsing of facts that one rarely sees in an appellate decision, where reality is whatever the opinion says it is, regardless of what actual evidence was presented and how that evidence connects (or not) with the rest of the dots. 

To the extent this decision is outcome oriented, bad facts compelling a bad outcome, it doesn’t appear to do anywhere near as much harm to the law as it could have, and for that we should be grateful.  But as the dissent makes clear, it’s still about outcome. Martin Heidgen was convicted of murder for the drunk driving deaths a was going to stay that way.

4 thoughts on “Heidgen: Bad Law Distinguished

  1. Jonathan Edelstein

    Yes, really bad facts. You actually left out the factor that disturbed the majority the most — that Heidgen actually “tracked” two cars that were trying to avoid him, and apparently attempted to engineer a collision.

    Fortunately, the decision leaves plenty of room for reversal where the defendant isn’t on a “suicide mission.”

  2. SHG

    I did leave that out, mostly because I found the majority’s explanation (especially when combined with Justice Cohen’s refutation) utterly confusing, and couldn’t think of how to explain it without being similarly confused. 

  3. Billy

    While not causing the horrific outcome that Martin Heidgen caused when he drove drunk, I did what he did on many occasions. Most alcoholics have. Many non-alcoholics have drunkenly driven cars most without incident although horrific things do happen to them as well.

    Thousands of years of recorded history support the adage: first the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the drink, then the drink takes the man. In other words, the impairment in judgment caused by the consumption of (the chemical depressant ethyl) alcohol can cause and does cause seemingly inexplicable disasters like the horrible outcome in this case, but murder? It seem to me that the key from a criminal intent (mens rea) perspective isn’t what Heidgen did after he was totally drunk, but what was his mental state (mens rea) when he took the first drink knowing he would be operating a car, later that night. In my opinion and experience a totally intoxicated person is so anesthetized that they are incapable of forming criminal intent of the type the NY courts are reaching in this case.

    So the only way to understand a MURDER conviction in Heidgen’s case is from the perspective that you set out in your post, Scott, the outcome is supported by outrage over the harm. We can call it “depraved indifference,” but the reality is that once an alcoholic (and others) sitting in a bar anywhere takes the first drink knowing that they intend to drive away all bets are off. All you have to do is spend a few days looking at local news websites and the Legal Profession Blawg to see the anecdotal evidence for this position. All sorts of people put their families, careers, licenses, and innocent bystanders in the glass with the first drink, not the thirteenth.

  4. SHG

    The assumption belying the treatment of drunk driving as depraved indifferent is that it’s a voltional choice is that the drinker/driver knows before he takes his first sip that he’s going to end up so wasted as to not merely endanger the lives of others, but essentially assure that his subsequent driving will end up in the death of another.  The assumption is false from the outset and proven false 10,000 times a day.

    But it’s that one in a million like Heidgen that makes all the scolds wag their finger and say, “I told you so.”

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