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New York Post

 

Drivers Who Leave The Scene Flee From Justice's Grip

March 24, 2014

By Nicole Gelinas

The death of a small child is heartbreaking. But if it’s your kid who is dead, it doesn’t matter if he was 3 or 23 when he died. You’re not supposed to outlive your children. Belkys Rivera outlived her firstborn: A driver hit Josbel Rivera, 23, at a Bronx intersection and left him to die.

Add injustice to the horror: Police made an arrest — but the alleged perp won’t face homicide charges.

Rivera, a nanny, last saw her son Christmas Day 2011. He enjoyed the holiday with his family, then went to meet his friends. When the bell rang the next morning, Rivera expected to see her son at the door of their Bronx home; she figured he’d forgotten his key.

Instead, she found two police officers. They asked her to gather her two younger sons, then gently told her that Josbel was dead.

Josbel died doing what New Yorkers do every day: crossing the street. He saw two women friends home and then set off, alone, across Mosholu Parkway in Norwood. He made it most of the way. A driver, allegedly Mitchum Williams, now 30, hit Josbel, then fled — leaving the young man dying at the scene.

Josbel is deeply missed. His mother was already a widow; his father had died of cancer. And Josbel was “a role model,” says Shaniel Rivera, the “baby” of the three brothers, now 22 and a student at the University of Nebraska. “I was 13 when my father died,” says Shaniel. “He took the father role. He was the one who said, ‘You can go to college.’ ”

Shaniel has seen his mother “suffer” over the past 2½ years, he says, as she tries to see justice done. “He may not be here to defend himself,” she says of Josbel quietly but firmly (through a translator). “But I am defending him.”

Josbel’s case shows how hard it is to get justice for victims of violent traffic deaths — especially when the driver flees from a bleeding victim in the middle of the night, which often makes it a circumstantial case.

With no apparent eyewitnesses, detectives of the 52nd Precinct did a bang-up job in tracking down Williams over six months. Williams allegedly went so far as to torch his car — it blew up — two days after the hit-and-run.

Even after they tracked Williams down — video from a private camera shows someone who looks like him fleeing the burning car — it was slow going.

Bronx prosecutors charged a key witness with perjury for allegedly providing a false alibi; that witness, who presumably could have testified against Williams, later died.

Even after all that work, the best case prosecutors can make is not that Williams allegedly killed Josbel.

To face a vehicular homicide charge in New York, a driver needs to be drunk or on drugs — and if you flee the scene, you make it impossible for prosecutors to make that case. (Even the fact that Williams was allegedly driving with a suspended license wouldn’t have mattered that much, as the penalty is low.)

Perversely, then, the worst thing that Williams did, from his perspective, was allegedly torch his own car — for the top charge he faces is arson.

Arson carries a top sentence of 15 years, giving prosecutors some room to offer a plea bargain — today is Williams’ day in court — while at least ensuring the defendant does some solid time if he takes the deal.

Otherwise, in a hit-and-run, good defense attorneys — and even bad ones — know full well that all prosecutors have is a circumstantial case. At trial, it’s easy to sow doubt in a few jurors’ minds that maybe the owner of the car wasn’t driving it — or that maybe the driver “just panicked” after a pedestrian caused distress to a driver by getting himself killed. (The police report says Josbel was “in the vicinity of the crosswalk,” but it’s easy to say that a pedestrian was “improperly” crossing when the victim is thrown and killed.)

How confident are defense attorneys that jurors are forgiving of drivers who “panic” and flee?

Williams’ public defender was flabbergasted that anyone from the press was even interested in the case. “This is a leaving-the-scene [case],” he said before declining comment on his client’s alleged actions.

He was genuinely perplexed, too, at the news that City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez cared enough to hold a City Hall press conference on the issue ahead of Williams’ court date Monday.

Rodriguez, who heads the council’s Transportation Committee, wants Albany to change the law to at least give victims a fairer shot at justice in a case where the driver left someone to die.

Along with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rodriguez is pushing a bill to boost the penalty for leaving the scene of a crash so that it’s the same as the penalty for injuring someone while drunk — that is, up to four years in prison (still not long enough, but that’s another story).

That way, hit-and-run drivers could run — but not hide — when it comes time to plea bargain.

Original Source: http://nypost.com/2014/03/24/drivers-that-leave-the-scene-flee-from-justices-grip/

 

 
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