Friday, January 04, 2008

Equal Justice For Celeb?

Former Yankee faces DUI Homicide Charges


The Cool Justice Report
Jan. 4, 2008

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

Former New York Yankee catcher Jim Leyritz was arrested in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. this week and accused of running a red light and causing a collision that killed a 30-year-old woman.

Leyritz gained national attention when his three-run homer helped lead the Yankees to a comeback victory in the first of their recent World Series Championships in 1996. He now finds himself facing charges for DUI (Driving under the influence or driving while impaired and DUI manslaughter.

Like Florida, Connecticut treats a vehicular homicide involving impairment by alcohol or drugs as manslaughter. There are traditionally varying degrees of homicide, with murder being the most serious. Some states have several degrees of murder, but not our state. Murder is, generally, the intentional killing of another. Unless the limited instances of capital felony are charged, murder is punished by a fixed term of years between 25 and 60.

Next in the chain of degrees of homicide is manslaughter. Generally what separates murder from manslaughter is the state of mind of the actor. In the law we refer to that as the "mens rea." Although there are varying segments to the manslaughter statute, the most common forms charged involve either the intent to cause serious physical injury where death ensues instead, or recklessly causing death. Manslaughter in the first degree is commonly referred to as voluntary manslaughter. Thus, the law requires some volitional act by the perpetrator. In the absence of the use of a firearm, first degree manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years. If death is caused by a firearm that maximum doubles to 40 years.

Manslaughter in the second degree requires a lesser state of mind and is often referred to as involuntary manslaughter. That crime carries a maximum term of 10 years. Vehicular manslaughter carries the same maximum penalty. Connecticut General Statutes § 53a-56b (a) provides: ''A person is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree with a motor vehicle when, while operating a motor vehicle under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug or both, he causes the death of another person as a consequence of the effect of such liquor or drug.''

As the language demonstrates, there is no requirement that the state prove that the killing was intentional or even as the result of reckless conduct. Proof is sufficient that establishes the defendant was the operator of vehicle that caused the death of another, and that at the time, the defendant was under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both. The reference to "drugs" does not merely refer to illegal street drugs. One can be impaired by ingestion of certain over the counter or prescribed drugs. The existence of a valid prescription is no defense to this charge.

Alcohol is known to potentiate the effects of certain controlled drugs, and even some over the counter medications; that is, the dose alone is not sufficient to cause impairment, nor perhaps is the amount of alcohol ingested sufficient, but in combination the drug's effects are magnified when alcohol is added to the mix.

If death does not ensue but serious physical injury does, the defendant can be charged with the five-year felony of assault in the second degree. In either situation, the state can also charge DUI without offending the double jeopardy proscriptions of the Constitution. In the manslaughter or assault case the state does not have to prove that the accused's blood alcohol was .08 or greater (the standard for DUI) but rather that the alcohol or drugs impaired the operator and as a consequence of that impairment the accident occurred.

These are difficult charges for even the most experienced practitioner to defend. Most times the defendants are not hardened criminals. Often they are first offenders who are otherwise responsible citizens. The confluence of alcohol or drugs and driving, however, is the trump card that exposes even the first offender to substantial prison time.

Jim Leyritz may show up in a Florida courtroom wearing his 1996 World Series Championship ring, but it will be no special talisman. Like any drunk who drives and kills, expect that Leyritz, if convicted, will be back in uniform again. This time it will be the kind of uniform worn by the inmates of the Florida Department of Corrections.

Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website,

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