NY driver charged with murder; crash killed grad

July 18, 2012 - 1:36 PM

RIVERHEAD, N.Y. (AP) — A Long Island man who prosecutors say had a blood-alcohol reading four times the legal limit and approached speeds of 100 mph before crashing into a car driven by a recent high school graduate was charged Wednesday with her murder.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota noted that the charge, based on indifference to human life, is a rarity and said it was the first time in his 11-year tenure as chief prosecutor that he sought a grand jury indictment for murder in a drunken driving case.

Michael Grasing, 31, pleaded not guilty after an 11-count indictment was unsealed in the death of 18-year-old Brittney Walsh. He stood handcuffed with his hands trembling during the brief arraignment but didn't speak; his attorney entered the plea for him. He was ordered held on $1 million bail. The attorney, Daniel Russo, declined to speak with reporters after the proceeding.

"Brittney Walsh never had a chance," Spota said afterward, with the teenager's family standing behind him. "Grasing clearly had a total disregard for the value of any human life."

The teenager's father, Thomas Walsh, said the family understands that obtaining a murder conviction might be difficult because it happens rarely, but he appreciated the district attorney's efforts. "Regardless of what happens in that courtroom, it will never bring my little girl back," he said.

Walsh died on June 24 — a Sunday. She had attended her prom the previous Thursday, her graduation on Friday and her graduation party on Saturday, Assistant District Attorney Laura Newcombe said. She was killed while returning home from a part-time job. She had an advanced Regents diploma from Walter G. O'Connell Copiague High School.

Prosecutors said a bystander at a fast-food restaurant had noticed that Grasing was intoxicated and told him not to drive. Grasing ran two red lights, weaved through traffic and never stepped on the brakes before hitting Walsh's vehicle, Spota said. A police officer saw him driving 100 mph moments before the crash. Grasing's car only stopped when it struck a pole, Spota said.

It's uncommon for a fatal crash to result in a murder charge. Martin Heidgen was convicted in Nassau County of murder after driving the wrong way on a Long Island parkway in 2005. That accident killed a limousine driver and a 7-year-old flower girl coming home from a family wedding. He is serving 19 years in prison but is appealing that conviction.

In addition to murder, Grasing was also charged with aggravated vehicular homicide, manslaughter, leaving the scene, reckless endangerment, reckless driving, aggravated DWI as a felony, DWI as a misdemeanor, failure to stop at a signal, failure to stay in lane and speeding.

If convicted of murder, he could face a maximum of 25 years to life in prison.