Two years ago in Charlotte, N.C., a professional
basketball player named Bobby Phills was killed in a
car crash that got a good deal of national attention.
His death was cast as a tragedy, a respected young man
cut down in his prime.
Understandably, with his family and teammates in
anguish, little was said then about how Mr. Phills had
effectively killed himself and how only by the grace
of fate did he not take others with him.
In a Porsche bearing the license plate "SLAM'N," he
was drag-racing with another player, going more than
75 miles an hour some estimates were much
higher in a 45-m.p.h. zone. At that outrageous
speed, he lost control and collided with another car.
That car was then rear-ended by a taxi.
Cold as this will sound, the fact that only Mr.
Phills died qualifies as good news. All too often,
destiny can be perverse. Reckless drivers kill
innocent people while surviving themselves.
Arguably even more perverse is a tendency to then
let them off the hook.
In New York, the laws make it hard to convict such
people, assuming that they are even charged to begin
with. Repeated attempts by the New York State District
Attorneys Association to toughen the laws keep going
nowhere in Albany.
When cases do go to trial, juries have a habit of
sympathizing with defendants accused of doing terrible
things behind the wheel while drunk. They identify
even more, experience shows, with a driver who, like
Mr. Phills, has thrown caution to the wind while stone
"One of the hardest things we have to deal with in
these cases is that feeling of `There but for the
grace of God go I,' " said Joseph Petrosino, chief of
the felony trial division in the Brooklyn district
"But people make choices," Mr. Petrosino said. "We
avoid the word `accident' in these cases. These are
criminal acts. The deaths that result may be
unintentional, but the acts that are done that lead to
these deaths are intentional."
Brooklyn is an interesting proving ground right now
because of several traffic deaths that are nothing
short of shocking, even in a city inured to horror, a
place where an average of one person a day dies on the
Actually, the situation has greatly improved. In
1990, before the numbers started to drop, there were
701 traffic deaths in New York City. There were 385
such deaths last year and 378 in 2000, with
pedestrians accounting for half the total each year.
Still, a lot of people die.
SO sometimes it takes a Joseph Gray to get New Yorkers
to pay attention.
Mr. Gray is the former police officer on trial for
manslaughter in Brooklyn Supreme Court. He is accused
of going on a drinking binge one day last August when
he was still on the force and then running down a
pregnant woman, Maria Herrera, and her family. She
died. So did her 16-year-old sister, her 4-year-old
son and the child she was carrying. A toxicologist
testified that Mr. Gray may have knocked back as many
as get this 18 beers.
Of course, it is for the jurors to decide guilt or
innocence. But they may have trouble forgetting the
testimony this week of Freddie Roman, who was on the
scene right away. With the bodies lying on the ground,
Mr. Roman said, Mr. Gray told him, "Come on, man, we
all have a few beers once in a while."
Sometimes attention is also focused by the likes of
Mr. Barninka, shades of Bobby Phills, is accused of
having turned his red Ferrari into a torpedo eight
days ago along Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. Supposedly,
he was going as fast as 100 miles an hour when he hit
Howard Mazariegos, whose life came to an end at age
28, along with his dreams of becoming a successful
photographer, said his sister, Ingrid.
In this case, the suspect is not having just the
book thrown at him. Mr. Barninka faces an entire shelf
of charges, led by second-degree murder.
Making such charges stick is not easy, though.
Generally speaking, prosecutors need an action beyond
speeding say, running a red light to
prove criminal intent. "Within the legal community,
and maybe within society in general, there's a
perception that speeding by itself cannot be enough to
sustain criminal charges," said Maureen McCormick, an
assistant district attorney in Brooklyn.
To John Kaehny, the executive director of
Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for
pedestrians and bicyclists, the message is stark. "If
you kill with a car and you are not drunk," he said,
"the odds that you'll do any jail time are extremely