Man on trial for chain-reaction crash that left officer dead

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A prosecutor urged a jury Monday to convict a suburban New York man of vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving and other charges in the death of a police officer, despite the fact that another driver was actually the one who struck and killed the highway patrolman.

Nassau County Police Officer James Oliveri's death is directly the fault of James Ryan, Assistant District Attorney Maureen McCormick said in closing arguments, because Ryan "drove wildly, recklessly and drunk," turning the Long Island Expressway "into his own drunken speedway."

The unusual case is being closely watched by legal experts, who 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.

Prosecutors say Ryan, a 28-year-old part-time student, created the situation that led to Olivieri's death. "They are the natural, foreseeable consequences of his actions and he owns them," McCormick said of the October 2012 wreck.

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's attorney conceded during his closing argument that his client had been drinking in a Manhattan bar and had a blood-alcohol level of 0.13, which is higher than the state's threshold of 0.08. But Marc Gann said the SUV driver was driving recklessly and failed to avoid crashing into the wreckage from Ryan's earlier accident.

"Yes, he's responsible for drinking and driving, there's no dispute about that at all," Gann said. But he insisted that the SUV driver "is solely responsible for the death of Officer Olivieri."

That driver, Francis Belizaire, testified during the trial that he was driving 30 to 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."

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."

The jury was expected to begin deliberations Tuesday.