MINEOLA, Long Island --A man driving home from New York City after a night of drinking set off a sequence of crashes that resulted in a police officer's death and should be held criminally responsible for it, prosecutors said Tuesday at his trial.
Officer James Olivieri was killed by another man's SUV while maneuvering through wreckage on the Long Island Expressway.
Although the defendant, James Ryan, wasn't actually the driver who struck the officer in October 2012, he created the situation that led to the accident, Nassau County Assistant District Attorney Michael Bushwack told jurors in his opening statement.
"He forged a link in the chain of causes that killed Officer Olivieri," Bushwack said. "Officer Olivieri died protecting the person whose recklessness killed him."
Defense attorney Zeena Abdi argued, however, that the SUV driver who actually struck the police officer - and who was never charged - is the one responsible.
"This case is a stretch," Abdi said. "It is a tragic case, but it is a stretch. The fact that he was drinking does not mean he caused Officer Olivieri's death."
Ryan's trial on aggravated vehicular homicide, manslaughter, drunken driving and other charges began Tuesday following years of vigorous court battles. Ryan, a 28-year-old part-time student, could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charges.
According to prosecutors, Ryan's Toyota first hit a BMW on the expressway shortly before 5 a.m., stopped 1,500 feet down the road in the high-occupancy lane and then was hit by another car. A few minutes later, an SUV driver apparently did not see Ryan's vehicle, which had been turned sideways from the earlier crashes, and smashed into Ryan's car before hitting Olivieri.
Ryan allegedly had been drinking in a Manhattan bar and had a blood-alcohol level of 0.13, which is higher than the state's 0.08 threshold, according to court documents.
Bushwack said Ryan's actions "caused chaos on the expressway that night."
A state judge initially dismissed the charges, finding Olivieri's death was "solely attributable" to the SUV driver.
A state appeals court later reinstated the charges, saying it was "reasonably foreseeable that the defendant's conduct would cause collisions and that the police would respond and be required to be in the roadway, where they would be exposed to the potentially lethal danger presented by fast-moving traffic."
Joseph McCormack, an adjunct law professor at St. John's University who serves as the New York state traffic safety resource prosecutor, says prosecutors are employing the legal principle of "causation/foreseeability," in which suspects are charged in events that are foreseeable results of their actions.
In one such case from 1994, a New York City man was convicted of murder in the death of an officer who was had been chasing after him in a robbery investigation and fatally fell through a skylight.