October 25, 2006
What a difference a county line makes. Last week two notorious drunk driving cases illuminated a difference in philosophy between the Nassau and Suffolk County District Attorneys.
On October 17 a jury in Mineola emerged from sequester to find Martin Heidgen guilty of murder. Freshman Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice had been criticized by defense attorneys for making an example of Heidgen, who slammed his car straight into a limo on the Meadowbrook Parkway, killing the driver and a seven-year-old girl.
The very next day after the jury rendered its conviction, the body's forewoman announced that she and another juror had succumbed to pressure from other panelists and changed their votes. It was a move that, in combination with the judge's questionable sequestering (juries are not supposed to be sequestered simply to prompt a verdict), can only be a boon to an appeal.
In the time frame between the verdict and shocking juror announcement, Suffolk District Attorney Tom Spota announced that he would not pursue murder charges against Karen Fisher.
Fisher, a Springs resident, is accused of driving drunk and running down Monsignor William Costello, then leaving the scene last July. With the Heidgen case and Rice's scathing condemnations of drunk drivers in the news, Spota said last summer in the early days of the investigation that he would consider a murder charge, if further review established evidence to support the charge.
Apparently, it didn't. "After reviewing the data from the accident reconstruction, and barring any new evidence or witnesses, we've concluded there is insufficient evidence to present to a grand jury to consider additional criminal charges against Ms. Fisher," Spota said. Although it remains to be seen what evidence prosecutors can produce in the Fisher trial, in Nassau witnesses viewed a dramatic videotape from the limousine showing the deadly trajectory and fatal crash. Even with such "ironclad" evidence the jury deadlocked, validating Spota's caution.
Only twice in the last three decades has Suffolk charged a defendant with murder in a drunk driving case. In 1998 Edwin Hernandez of Medford killed three people, two young men from Riverhead and a third from Wading River, in a high-speed New Year's Eve crash on the L.I.E. He was charged with second-degree murder by depraved indifference, but the jury declined to convict him of the high charge, opting instead to go with a manslaughter and DWI conviction.
In 1980 William Fischer of Bay Shore killed four people while driving drunk. Despite four murder counts, a jury convicted him of second-degree manslaughter.
On October 13, Fisher was released from Suffolk County Jail, where she'd spent the last three months, on $250,000 cash bail. She was due back in court last Wednesday, but her defense attorney received a waiver from appearance. Fisher left jail and entered an East End rehabilitation facility. She pled guilty to a charge of driving while impaired in 2004; the arrest following the fatal crash was her third alcohol-related collar.