Driver Who Killed Pedestrian in Police Chase Was Not "Depraved" Because He Tried to Avoid Collision, Court Rules
In April 2009, 28-year-old Jose Maldonado hot-wired a mini-van and led police on a car chase through Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Maldonado ran a red light on Manhattan Avenue and hit 37-year-old Violetta Krzyzak, who lived nearby. She died.
Maldonado crashed into parked cars three blocks away and police arrested him. He was convicted of multiple charges. The most serious charge was "depraved indifference murder," which counts as murder in the second degree.
In addition, a jury found him guilty of unlawful fleeing of a police officer in a motor vehicle in the first degree and grand larceny in the fourth degree.
The counts added up to a sentence of 20 years to life in prison.
The murder count, of course, carried the largest portion of that sentence. Second degree murder carries a minimum sentence of 15 years and a maximum of 25 years in prison.
On Tuesday, though, the state's highest court ruled that second degree murder was too harsh a charge. The Court of Appeals, by a five to two margin, reduced the conviction to second degree manslaughter.
The decision may significantly alter the sentence. Second degree manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a minimum of three. A Brooklyn Supreme Court judge will give Maldonado a new sentenced based on the reduced manslaughter charge.
The ruling centered on the meaning of "depraved indifference," which the majority, citing case law, defined as a "mental state which is best understood as an utter disregard for the value of human life."
Prosecutors argued that Maldonado's crime qualified under this standard because he continued speed through the streets even after he narrowly missed a pedestrian.
The Court of Appeals majority, however, stated that "gravity of risk" alone is not enough--what matter is whether the defendant "does not care how the risk turns out."
Maldonado, the court concluded, did care, as evidenced by his evasive driving. He drove on the wrong side of the road at times, to overtake cars, but he quickly returned to the right side of the road once he had passed those cars.
"This conscious avoidance of risk is the antithesis of a complete disregard for the safety of others," Judge Jenny Rivera wrote for the majority. "Eyewitness testimony established that he repeatedly tried to avoid collisions while evading capture by the police."
So, while he was "unquestionably reckless," this recklessness was intended "both to speed his flight and to avoid crashing into other vehicles or pedestrians."
After Maldonado stole the van, he passed an unmarked police car. The officer in the car signaled for him to stop, and approached the van on foot. Maldonado took off. He ran at least three red lights and went the wrong way down a one-way street, according to the court. Witnesses said that he exceeded the 30 mile-per-hour speed limit by 10 to 20 miles-per-hour.
He nearly hit a pedestrian on Milton Street, but the woman dove out of the way. It was at the India Street intersection that he struck Krzyzak.
As the court described:
A witness who saw the moment of impact estimated that defendant was driving at 70 m.p.h., while another bystander thought his speed was closer to 80 m.p.h. It is clear from the testimony that defendant first swerved from the northbound to the southbound lane, to get around northbound vehicles stopped for the traffic light, and then immediately swerved back into the northbound lane, so as not to collide with stopped traffic straight ahead in the southbound lane. At this point, he slammed into Mrs. Kryzak.
Rivera wrote that Maldonado's next actions confirmed his concern for the safety of others: "When he saw more people and traffic two blocks later, defendant decided to crash into the parked car to avoid hurting anyone else. He also expressed remorse for his actions."
Judge Eugene Pigott and Victoria Graffeo disagreed with the majority's interpretation of Maldonado's mindset.
"There is no indication that defendant, though reckless, remained to some extent fearful for others' safety," Pigott wrote in the dissent. "Swerving in and out of traffic, including the maneuvers preceding the fatal impact, merely demonstrates defendant's desire to avoid apprehension, not to avoid pedestrians. To the extent it indicates avoidance of other vehicles, it simply shows that he was not suicidal."
Next: the text of the decision.
Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.