MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — A man who struck and killed a New York police officer investigating an accident on the Long Island Expressway broke down in tears testifying at the trial of another driver who is charged in the officer's death, saying he had barely a second to stop before smashing his SUV into the officer and the other man's vehicle.
"I didn't think anything was in front of me, everything was to the right," Francis Belizaire told jurors Monday at the trial of James Ryan.
Belizaire, 50, was never charged in the fatal wreck and instead Nassau County prosecutors indicted the 28-year-old Ryan, saying that because he was allegedly driving drunk when he set off a series of crashes, he created the situation that led to the accident.
The unique case is being closely watched by legal experts; they say it is rare for someone other than a driver directly involved in a fatal crash to be charged. The district attorney is employing the legal principle of "causation/foreseeability," in which suspects are charged in events that are foreseeable results of their actions.
Ryan allegedly had been drinking in a Manhattan bar and had a blood-alcohol level of 0.13, which is over the state's 0.08 threshold. He could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted of vehicular homicide.
Belizaire testified he was driving home from his job as a flagman with the New York City transit agency when he came upon a chaotic crash scene on the Long Island Expressway on Oct. 18, 2012.
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, Belizaire apparently did not see Ryan's vehicle, which had been turned sideways from the earlier crashes, hitting both the vehicle and Nassau County Police Officer James Olivieri.
The officer's car and another vehicle involved in the crash were situated on the right side of the roadway. Belizaire said he was driving between 30 and 40 mph in the left-hand HOV as he maneuvered through the crash scene.
"I just collided into the police officer and the vehicle that was facing the concrete divider," said Belizaire, who was granted immunity because he testified about the crash to a grand jury. "There were no lights on that vehicle for me to try to avoid it."
Later Monday, Belizaire became combative with defense attorney Marc Gann, who sought to point out discrepancies between Belizaire's grand jury testimony and what he said Monday. Gann noted that Belizaire testified to the grand jury that he was slowing down as he approached the crash scene because he saw debris from the earlier crashes.
But Belizaire said Monday that he had no recollection of seeing debris prior to striking the officer.
"I can't tell you yes or no," Belizaire said.
Gann also pointed out that Belizaire's 2002 Cadillac Escalade was equipped with high intensity headlights, which project more light than ordinary headlights.
"You still couldn't see anything in front of you?" Gann asked.
"No, sir," said Belizaire.