How to kill with impunity, in Queens

A letter from Right Of Way to the Queens District Attorney.

January 22, 1999

Mr. Richard A. Brown
District Attorney
Queens County
Queens Criminal Court Building
125-01 Queens Blvd.
Kew Gardens, NY 11415

Dear District Attorney Brown:

It is now nearly a month since young Aaron Brown was killed on a Sunday afternoon by a reckless driver at 110th Avenue and 164th Place. As of January 20, when we spoke to Mary de Bourbon in your office, there was no plan to charge Aaron's killer with anything more than traffic-related offenses: leaving the scene of an accident, driving without a license, and driving without insurance.

May we suggest an analogy to you? Suppose a man walked out onto a Queens street with a large-caliber revolver and began firing it at random. Suppose further that one of his bullets struck and killed a nine-year-old boy. Would you be content to charge him with unlicensed possession of a firearm, discharging a firearm within the city limits, and perhaps a noise violation? Of course not.

Hundreds of New York pedestrians, including 60 to 70 in Queens County, meet Aaron Brown's fate every year. Perhaps some of these fatalities are unavoidable. Perhaps some are the victim's fault. But many of them result directly from a culture of "vehicular entitlement": a pervasive attitude of extraordinary indulgence toward drivers who kill and maim their fellow citizens.

Kill somebody with a lead pipe, or a gun, and there are likely to be consequences. But do it with a car, and a traffic ticket is about the worst you can expect - if that.

The driver who killed Aaron on Dec. 27, 1998 is reported to have been indulging himself in "a kind of bumper-car chase" with another car at the time he mowed Aaron down. It is an undisputed fact that the driver was not licensed to operate a motor vehicle; and that when he struck Aaron the driver was leaving the scene of two previous accidents. Moreover, since the intersection where Aaron was struck is unsignalized, the driver violated Aaron's legal right of way by failing to yield (New York State Vehicle & Traffic Law, section 1151). Furthermore, Aaron's brother, Abuen Jewell, who was seriously injured by the same driver, reportedly states that the driver was speeding when he struck Aaron. This is, of course, typical behavior for drivers fleeing the scene of an accident, which makes Abuen's account highly probable. Unless your office has found some compelling reason for disbelieving that account, then the driver was committing at least four violations when he killed Aaron.

This is a picture that brings to mind the phrase "depraved indifference"; at the very least, the driver certainly took a "substantial and unjustifiable risk" under circumstances amounting to "a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation." (Definition of Criminally Negligent Homicide, Penal Law section 15.05)

Right of Way is a group of New Yorkers committed to ending the reign of terror which irresponsible drivers, and negligent officials, have imposed on our streets. We recognize that this cannot happen until people who use a car to kill are treated the same as killers with any other weapon; and that depends on you, Mr. Brown. It isn't too much to say that law-enforcement officials who wink at vehicular crime are, morally, accessories before and after the fact.

Two years ago, City Council Member - now U.S. Congress Member - Anthony D. Weiner asked you to report pedestrian fatality cases in Queens County in 1994-95 in which your office had prosecuted the drivers for crimes above and beyond traffic offenses. In a letter dated March 24, 1997, you replied that your office's casetracking system revealed only four cases - out of some 125 - in which Vehicular Manslaughter was charged. While clearly not every pedestrian fatality rises to the level of a violent crime, it strains credulity that only a few percent of such fatalities warrant serious prosecution of the driver.

The man who took Aaron Brown's young life should be charged, at the very least, with vehicular manslaughter. It is time - long past time - to end the bizarre and perverse practice of coddling drivers who kill.


Charles Komanoff
Michael Smith