A driver that struck and killed a pedestrian on the Bowery last winter was charged with manslaughter by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., raising hopes among some pedestrian safety advocates that prosecutors are changing the way they handle such cases.
“The charge of manslaughter in the second degree under these circumstances is not unprecedented, but it is very rare,” said Marco Conner, legislative and legal manager for Transportation Alternatives, a leading voice in the push for increased bicyclist and pedestrian safety.
In November, Danny Lin, 25, was driving his 2011 BMW 335xi on the Bowery when he struck and killed Robert Perry, who was crossing the street. The DA’s office said Lin was driving 55 mph, over twice the new 25 mph speed limit that had been introduced citywide less than three weeks prior.
Perry, age 57, was thrown into the air and landed 140 feet away from the scene of the accident. He was transported to Beekman Downtown Hospital where he later died. Lin’s conduct was made worse when he reportedly lost control of the vehicle after striking Perry and crashed into a hydrant on a sidewalk full of pedestrians.
“Miraculously, no one else was hurt,” said Vance in announcing the indictment. “City streets are no place for this kind of reckless driving and dangerous speed.”
Lin pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter charges and, according to the Daily News, claimed he was only going a few miles an hour over the speed limit at the time of the accident. The DA’s office declined further comment.
Perry was one of 144 pedestrians struck and killed on the streets of New York last year. Many of those deaths involved driver error. Yet the DA’s office rarely brings criminal charges in such cases unless alcohol is a factor.
Attorney Ben Rubinowitz, who represented lawyer Nat Dershowitz in a successful civil case against the driver of a postal service truck that struck and killed his wife, said Lin was likely charged because he was so egregiously violating the speed limit.
“I think it has to do with the severity of the conduct,” said Rubinowitz. “If someone were driving the speed limit, it would be questionable as to whether or not they could properly control the vehicle. But to drive it twice the speed limit there’s no doubt about it, they are not in control of their vehicle and they’re going to hurt someone.”
Rubinowitz said in a failure-to-yield case where the driver is making a left-hand turn, that driver technically has the right to proceed. Lin, by contrast, did not have the right to be driving at twice the speed limit, as prosecutors allege he was.
Rubinowitz also represents Dana Lerner, whose son, Cooper Stock, was a victim of perhaps the most high-profile pedestrian death of last year. Cooper, age 9, was walking in the crosswalk with his father when he was struck and killed by cabbie Koffi Komlani. Cooper and his father were crossing with the light and had the right of way. Komlani was charged with a traffic violation and ordered to pay a fine as well as complete a driver safety course.
The lax penalty in Cooper Stock’s case set the pedestrian safety community off on a campaign to pressure the DA’s office into adopting a tougher stance against drivers who break the law and, as a result, kill or seriously injure a pedestrian.
After her son’s death, Lerner joined Families for Safe Streets, an organization made up of survivors and family members of those who have been killed by what they call “traffic violence.” Lerner passed Cooper’s Law, with the help of Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, which immediately suspends the license of any cab driver who kills or seriously injures a pedestrian, and revokes it fully if a subsequent investigation finds the driver at fault.
But such cases are always thorny for the victim and the perpetrator, as well as for officials who are tasked with obtaining justice. What constitutes a genuine accident? In the Dershowitz case, Vance indicted the driver of the postal service truck for leaving the scene of the accident but failed to secure a conviction after less than a day of jury deliberation.
Yet three years later, Rubinowitz secured a wrongful death decision in civil court, which include monetary damages for the family, prompting criticism of Vance for losing the criminal case. It also led to the notion among pedestrian safety advocates that Vance became gun shy when it comes to bringing criminal charges against drivers after losing the Dershowitz case.
But Conner praised Vance for bringing a manslaughter indictment against Lin, and said securing a conviction is by no means a sure thing.
“Based on what we know about this case, to prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt is no slam dunk,” said Conner. “Therefore it is highly commendable that Vance is bringing this charge.”
He also said that Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets have been told their advocacy on behalf of pedestrians is gaining traction among officials. “Prosecutors have told us that the efforts of Families for Safe Streets and other individuals affected by traffic violence, are resonating within their offices,” said Conner.
So would Lin have been indicted if not for the advent of Vision Zero and the rise of pedestrian safety advocates?
Rubinowitz said it’s hard to say, but that it’s quite possible charges would not have been brought against Lin.
“I think it’s questionable as to whether or not he would have been indicted,” he said. “I think what’s happening is that people are becoming much more aware, through the efforts of people like Dana Lerner, who are really concerned about pedestrian safety.”