Yaphank Man Not Guilty In Dwi Murder

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Yaphank Man Not Guilty in DWI Murder
Manhattan DWI Murder Trial Ends With Acquittal On All Charges

Nassau Attorney Finds It Pays To Persevere

By A. Anthony Miller – Nassau Lawyer

At 12:30 a.m. on September 20, 1997, Jason Rowley of Yaphank while intoxicated and with the stereo blasting, drove his 1996 Mitsubishi Eclipse through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel at speeds up to 120 miles per hour while four people in his car screamed at him to slow down.

As the car left the tunnel at the Manhattan end, it slammed into a cement wall. One passenger was instantly killed and the other four, including Rowley, were seriously injured, with two of them ejected from the car and one remaining in a coma for two months.

The estimate of Rowley’s speed came from five people, including one occupant of the car, the driver of another car, two people on foot and a police officer, all of whom witnessed the accident. The policeman described the noise coming from the Mitsubishi as it passed as sounding like a “jet engine,” while the driver of another car said it sounded like an “18-wheel tractor-trailer.” When Rowley’s blood was taken at the hospital four hours and 40 minutes after the impact, he had a .08 percent blood alcohol count reading.

Jason Rowley was at the time a 22-year-old veteran of two years service with the US Navy. He was married but separated and the father of a one year old son. He had no prior criminal record.

On October 6, 1997, a Manhattan grand jury indicted Rowley for murder in the second degree (PL §125.25[2]), second degree manslaughter (pL §125.15[1]), second degree vehicular manslaughter (PL § 125.12 [1 and 2]), three counts of first degree assault (PL § 120.10[3]), first-degree reckless endangerment (pL § 120.25) and operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol (VTL § 1192[3]).

Arraigned before a state Supreme Court justice in Manhattan , Rowley was ordered held without bail at Riker’s Island.

Rowley’s family retained Mineola attorney William Petrillo to represent him. Petrillo was himself a former (1984-1990) New York Police Officer, and a decorated one at that. He had graduated from City University of New York School of Law in 1994 and had worked for Nassau District Attorney Denis Dillon for the four years following his admission to the Bar. There he had tried some 42 jury trials on such charges as rape, attempted murder, robbery and burglary.

In July 1998, Petrillo became associated with Hession and Bekoff, Mineola , where he switched to criminal defense work. Thomas Hession and Ronald Bekoff are both former Nassau assistant district attorneys who began the firm 25 years ago.

Faced with the eight count indictment, Petrillo found that the Manhattan prosecutor wanted to hold Rowley to the murder charge and offered no reduced plea. As Petrillo later explained, “The prosecutor stated on the record immediately prior to jury selection ‘if the defendant would like to plead guilty to the murder charge, we will not take a position with respect to sentence; however, after trial, if convicted of murder, we will recommend 25 years to life.’ ”

Petrillo’s theory of the defense was that the witnesses were honestly mistaken as to their estimates of the Mitsubishi’s speed, and the estimates were further rendered unreliable by the horrific aftermath of a tragic accident, which included a dead body, four people seriously injured and a car that had been completely demolished. What damage was not caused by the impact was compounded by police and fire department rescuers, who cut the car apart to get the occupants out, further affecting its appearance.

Petrillo also found evidence that after the car had been purchased by Rowley, the roof had been cut open, changing the car into a convertible. At trial, a defense expert, Stephen Esterin of upstate Mahopac, explained that cutting the roof altered the structural integrity of the car, drastically affecting its ability to withstand the head-on impact.

Rowley, who testified on his behalf, admitted that while he had been drinking, he was not intoxicated. His speed did not exceed 75 MPH, still in excess of the posted 40 MPH limit, but he slowed to about 65 MPH as he left the tunnel by down shifting from fifth to fourth gear — which, he said, causes a loud roar from the engine. Rowley explained that he maintained the speed and entered a right fork which he perceived as an off-ramp. “It was actually a deceiving right turn that led to a traffic light where cars were stopped,” said Petrillo.

“Realizing that he was driving too fast for the turn, he drove his car onto the sidewalk, lost control, and crashed into the wall,” Petrillo said. This conduct, the defense contended, did not amount to either depraved indifference or recklessness or even criminal negligence. “It was simply a horrible tragedy with horrendous consequences and did not rise to the level of a crime,” Petrillo argued at the trial, which began on February 18 before Justice Richard Carruthers.

The trial lasted three weeks. Summations occupied a full day. After eight hours of deliberations, the jury on March 12 returned verdicts of not guilty on all 10 counts they were asked to consider, including added charges of criminally negligent homicide and driving while impaired which Petrillo asked be inserted as lesser included offenses.

Rowley was released from custody 15 minutes later. Bill Petrillo “did an awesome job,” Bekoff said.

A Long Wait for an Acquittal

The list of charges was as serious as it was long: murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, assault, driving while intoxicated, 10 counts in all and up to 25 years to life in prison if convicted.

So perhaps it wasn’t unusual that a Manhattan judge decided not to grant Jason Rowley’s application for bail. And maybe it was understandable that no serious plea bargain was ever put on the table.

But through the year and a half he spent at Riker’s Island awaiting trial, the Yaphank man repeatedly rewound his slow-motion memories of the car accident that killed a former Port Jefferson woman and injured four others, including himself.

He was convinced that it wasn’t his fault, that the witnesses were mistaken about how fast he was driving and how much he’d had to drink.

And three weeks ago, a Manhattan jury believed his testimony over the witnesses’, acquitting him of all charges. “By anyone’s standard, the position they [prosecutors] took in this case was very harsh,” said Rowley’s attorney, Bill Petrillo of Mineola . “It was outlandish — especially in light of the jury’s verdict. My client sat in jail for 18 months knowing he was innocent.”

Rowley, 24, with no prior record, had been locked up since the Sept. 20, 1997, accident, but walked out of the courtroom a free man — though still plagued by that haunting night.

“I’ve got to get my life in order now,” he said in an interview after the verdict, adding that he plans to repay his mother the $75,000 in legal fees. “I don’t think I should have been in jail that long, but because I was facing murder charges, they [prosecutors] can take their time bringing me to trial. . . . The whole system is just something that you have to deal with. I don’t ever plan to go back.”

But prosecutors and the victim’s family say the district attorney’s office was right on the mark with the second-degree murder charge — and, with the jury’s verdict, justice was denied.

“I think the jury totally ignored the evidence, totally ignored the testimony, totally ignored the law,” said Janice Plath, mother of 21 year old Amy Hurley, who was killed in the crash. “Maybe they felt sorry for the guy. Maybe they thought the year and a half was enough. . . . It was totally appalling that they could do such a thing.”

The accident was horrendous, the aftermath grotesque. Rowley had driven into the city from his mother’s house in Yaphank with a friend, Jose DeLosRios, who brought along his friend Ricardo Vargas. In Manhattan Manhattan, they picked up two young women that DeLosRios had met at a Port Jefferson bar the week before; Rowley didn’t know either of them.

The five headed downtown to the San Gennaro festival in Little Italy, but got lost and ended up in Brooklyn just after midnight. On their way back into Manhattan through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, Rowley was driving quickly and too late saw the backup of cars exiting the tunnel.

He managed to maneuver his 1996 Mitsubishi Eclipse through a nearby opening onto a concrete lot, where his car careened forward and barreled into a cement wall and then slid sideways into two concrete and metal posts. The car, which Rowley had remodeled to a convertible, was crushed instantly without the extra ceiling support.

DeLosRios and Vargas were thrown from the car through the open top, sustaining serious injuries. In the backseat, Vanessa Aldalla of Manhattan hit her head and lay in a coma for two months. Hurley died instantly as she was thrown upward into the roll bar. Rowley suffered a torn urethra. No one was wearing a seatbelt.

Rowley doesn’t remember anything after that, until he woke up in the hospital the next morning. He admits he had a few drinks during the evening, but he swears he was sober behind the wheel. And though he doesn’t remember seeing speed limit signs in the tunnel, Rowley estimates that he was going 65 mph when he exited the tunnel, the actual speed limit is 40.

I figured it was just like the expressway where the road split,” he explained, adding that he had never before driven in the city. “I was planning to have plenty of time to slow down.”

But prosecutors argued during the nearly three week-trial in Manhattan Criminal Court that Rowley’s speed hovered between 100 and 120 mph, as Vargas and several witnesses testified, and that he appeared tipsy with bloodshot eyes after the accident. A Spokesman for the Manhattan district attorney’s office said prosecutors had no comment on the case, because an acquittal seals all records.

Lawrence Kessler, professor of criminal law at Hofstra said murder charges for auto accidents are “increasingly becoming the thing to do.” And the acquittal rate is decreasing in kind.

“It used to be quite high, but now it’s not anymore,” Kessler said. “It reflects the changing public attitude toward the seriousness of drunken driving.” But he explained that in Rowley’s case, jurors were likely influenced by defense expert’s testimony that lighting and road conditions contributed to the crash.

But Plath, the victim’s mother, said Assistant District Attorney David Acevado presented a strong, thorough case with “overwhelming” evidence.

“I knew the trial wasn’t going to bring her back, but the law is the law,” she said. “We’re not talking rehabilitation here, we’re talking punishment. [Rowley] recklessly took my daughter’s life; as far as I’m concerned, he killed her. I think that there should be some punishment for that.”

Plath said her daughter had moved from Port Jefferson to Manhattan Manhattan, where she was studying graphic design. She was a vibrant woman who was accepting of anyone, her mother said.

Rowley attended Bellport High School and studied at Dowling College before joining the Navy. He married and had a son, Brandon, in 1995, but separated the following year. Rowley now plans to return to school to study electronics engineering.

And while the verdict brings him personal closure, Rowley knows it does not satisfy everyone. “No matter how much I apologize to them [Hurley’s family], they really don’t want to listen,” he said. “They want somebody to blame.”

Driver Acquitted in fatality
By Barbara Ross Daily News Staff Writer

A Yaphank man who admitted that he drank and drove over 70 mph just before his car crashed and killed a young woman has been acquitted of all criminal charges.

After deliberating seven hours on Tuesday, a Manhattan jury decided Jason Rowley, 22, was not guilty of murder, manslaughter, vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and even driving while impaired in the Sept 20, 1997, crash.

Rowley’s lawyer, Bill Petrillo, hailed the verdict, accusing the Manhattan district attorney’s office of being unduly “harsh” by charging Rowley with murder and keeping him in jail 18 months before the trial.

“This was a horrible tragedy. No one deserves to lose a life or a loved one, but Jason was 22 and never arrested before in his life,” Petrillo said.

Prosecutors, who were barred by the judge from telling jurors about Rowley’s driving record, which includes several speeding tickets, declined to respond, noting that the case records are sealed now because there was an acquittal.

Petrillo said Rowley admitted on the witness stand that he was going between 70 and 75 mph in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

Petrillo said Rowley, who was raised in Yaphank, had “never driven in the city before” and thought he was going to get onto a modern highway ramp when his car came out of the tunnel onto West Street Street.

Instead, he said, Rowley came around a blind corner, found cars stopped at a traffic light, swerved to avoid them and smashed into a wall, instantly killing one of his passengers — Amy Hurley, 23, of Manhattan — and seriously injuring three others.

A Police officer in the tunnel booth and three other witnesses estimated that Rowley was actually traveling more than 100 mph just before the 12:30 am crash. However, Petrillo said, the jury agreed with him that the judgment of the “well meaning” eyewitnesses was affected by their having watched “a horrific accident” and its aftermath.

Petrillo said Rowley also admitted on the witness stand that he had taken one sip from a bottle of rum. He said he stopped at one sip because the rum was warm.

Rowley’s blood, which was tested for alcohol four and a half hours after the accident, showed a level of .08%, which is under the .10% legal limit for driving while intoxicated.

The legal limit for driving while impaired ranges from .05% to .09%, but drivers with that blood range also have to show other signs of impairment such as slurred speech, Petrillo said.

One passenger in the car said Rowley seemed “tipsy” and “buzzed,” but Petrillo said other witnesses said he did not show other signs of being impaired.

Rowley, a Navy veteran and house worker with a 3-year-old son, was driving his friends to the San Gennaro festival when the crash occurred. No one in the car was wearing a seat belt.