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Ex-Officer Admits to Day of Drinking but Denies He Was Drunk at Wheel

April 30, 2002
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Ex-Officer Admits to Day of Drinking but Denies He Was Drunk at Wheel

by Nichole M. Christian, New York Times

Joseph Gray, the former police officer on trial for manslaughter, testified yesterday that he drank up to 12 beers but was not drunk when his minivan plowed into a pregnant woman and her family last August as they walked home from a shopping trip in Brooklyn.

Mr. Gray's admission began the most tense day of testimony so far in the trial in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, now in its second week. In his first day on the stand, the former officer, a 14-year veteran, set out to explain his claim that the pregnant woman, Maria Herrera, 24; her 4-year-old son, Andy; and her 16-year-old sister, Dilcia Peña, actually caused their own deaths by running in front of his car at a dimly lit intersection beneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Sunset Park.

Mr. Gray is also charged with the death of Mrs. Herrera's infant son, Ricardo, who was delivered by emergency Caesarean section and lived for a few hours after the crash. If convicted of four counts of manslaughter, Mr. Gray could be sentenced to 15 years in prison.

"As I went through the intersection," he said, referring to the scene of the crash, the corner of 46th Street and Third Avenue, "I just saw this person come from my left side. I didn't even know if it was a man or a woman. The last thing I remember was the air bag exploded in my face."

For 45 minutes, his lawyer, Harold Levy, elicited testimony that portrayed Mr. Gray as a decorated officer and a dedicated father, a former Eagle Scout who did nothing wrong that day but fail to see a woman, eight months pregnant, run out into traffic.

Mr. Levy is expected to take the jury to the scene of the accident today.

In his testimony before an attentive jury and a gallery overflowing with spectators and family members on both sides, Mr. Gray outlined how he began the day of Aug. 4, first by drinking four to five beers in the parking lot of the 72nd Precinct station house, where a group of officers who had also finished the midnight-to-8-a.m. shift were gathered around a cooler of beer. Mr. Gray acknowledged that he had chipped in when another officer went to buy more beer, a 12-pack.

Around noon, he said, he drove to the Wild Wild West Club, a topless bar off limits to police officers, where he joined four other officers and continued drinking Budweisers. Mr. Gray testified that he continued drinking until just before 8 p.m. An hour later, prosecutors say, he got into his van and sped through a red light, hitting Mrs. Herrera, her son and her sister as they tried, hand in hand, to make their way home.

But several times through 90 minutes of direct testimony and cross-examination yesterday, Mr. Gray insisted that his judgment had not been impaired and that the light had been green.

He tried, for the first time, to explain why he had refused to submit to sobriety tests after the accident, saying that his union representative had advised him not to take a breath analysis test and that he feared that he would fail a coordination test because "I have always had a problem with my balance." He said he was treated for vertigo 18 or 19 years ago.

Prosecutors contend that Mr. Gray was legally drunk based on a court-ordered blood test given four hours after the accident. It showed that his blood-alcohol content was 0.16 percent, and a prosecution witness, a toxicologist, testified last week that based on his extrapolation, Mr. Gray's blood-alcohol content would have been 0.23 percent when the accident occurred, more than twice the legal limit and the equivalent of 18 beers.

Yesterday, Mr. Gray recounted what he told witnesses that night, saying he pleaded with the crowd not to touch the bodies of the victims.

He testified that one witness pulled him to the front of his van, where Andy Herrera lay trapped. "I told him, `I had a couple of beers but I'm not drunk,' " Mr. Gray said.

However, Joseph Petrosino, the lead prosecutor, drew a far different picture of Mr. Gray's actions that night, describing him as an officer who had not slept in 22 hours, did little to help the victims, knowingly broke the law and sought and received special treatment from officers involved in the investigation.

For example, Mr. Gray admitted that on the night of the accident, investigating officers allowed his wife to join him, an unusual move, as he sat, without handcuffs, in a juvenile detention room talking with his union representatives.

"I was being given consideration," Mr. Gray said. "I don't believe it was special treatment."

Finally, Mr. Petrosino said: "You've got a 4-year-old boy underneath your car and you're a trained police officer. Ever think about getting down and helping him?"

"No," Mr. Gray responded, "I had three hours of CPR training back in 1986."

Mr. Gray did offer an apology to the victims' families. "I know I will never get forgiveness from the Peña and Herrera families," he said. "But I hope everyone knows how sorry I feel for this terrible accident."

The day's testimony left Mrs. Herrera's relatives calling for a broad investigation into the actions of officers involved in the arrest.

One such investigation is already under way, according to senior law enforcement officials. The Brooklyn district attorney's office is examining the actions of a highway patrol officer, now retired, who admitted last week in court that he had discussed with police union delegates which sobriety tests Mr. Gray could probably "beat."

A senior police official said the department's Internal Affairs Bureau also planned to investigate the case after the trial, though the official said many of the missteps cited by the prosecution appeared to stem from incompetence rather than an attempt to disrupt the investigation.

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