Sunday, January 11, 2009

'60 Minutes' Features Flynn Family

DWI tragedy reexamined

By Joseph Kellard

“I wanted that courthouse on top of him, I wanted him buried under the jail, I want him dead," Neil Flynn, of Lido Beach, said on “60 Minutes” last Sunday.

Flynn was referring to Martin Heidgen, the Valley Stream man who killed his 7-year-old daughter, Katie, in a horrific drunk-driving accident on the Meadowbrook Parkway three and a half years ago.

Flynn appeared in the opening segment of CBS's top-rated news show, which focused on Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice and her crusade to more severely penalize drunk drivers, and especially those who kill other drivers. The Flynn-Heidgen case was the centerpiece of the report.

Seated beside his wife, Jennifer, Flynn told “60 Minutes” correspondent Bob Simon, “I relive the crash, I think about it every day, I have nightmares about it every night, and I live my life without my daughter because of it.”

The crash Flynn relives occurred early on the morning of July 2, 2005. Driving north in a Chevrolet pickup truck at high speed in the southbound lanes of the Meadowbrook with a blood-alcohol content three times the legal limit, Heidgen slammed into the limousine that was taking Katie and her sister, parents and grandparents home from a wedding reception in Bayville, where she had been a flower girl at her aunt's wedding. While Heidgen suffered only wrist and ankle injuries, the limo driver, Stanley Rabinowitz, 59, of Farmingdale, was crushed to death, Katie was decapitated, and other passengers were severely injured.

Instead of manslaughter, the typical charge for a DWI fatality, Heidgen was charged with murder. So instead of facing a sentence ranging from probation to 15 years in prison, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 18 years to life in October 2006.

“The statute under which he was charged required us to prove that, through his actions, he had a completely depraved indifference to human life,” Rice explained to Simon. “His actions made the deaths of Katie Flynn and Stanley Rabinowitz inevitable. It was as inevitable as taking a gun and firing it at an individual who is standing five feet away from me.”

Heidgen's attorney, Stephen Lamagna of Garden City, told Simon that charging his client with murder instead of vehicular homicide was akin to treating him like a cold-blooded killer on a par with serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. “Are we as a society ready to water down what murder is and turn our sons and daughters into murderers who go out and drink and drive and cause a fatal accident?” Lamagna said.

“No matter how tragic these cases are ... they're an unintentional act that was caused by the alcohol. But for the alcohol, this wouldn't have happened.”

Rice responded that being drunk should not absolve Heidgen of responsibility for his actions.

“What kind of lawlessness would you have if intoxication excused that kind of behavior?” she said.

Catherine Olian, the producer of the “60 Minutes” segment, told the Herald that the main reason the show's producers decided to spotlight this case was its groundbreaking outcome.

“There are very sad deaths from drunk driving all the time, and that wouldn't make us do a story,” Olian explained. “It was the fact that [Heidgen] was convicted of murder that made us interested in the story. That's when we thought how drunk-driving deaths are treated in the courts. Was this usual or unusual?”

The show began researching the story last spring, Olian said, interviewing prosecutors and defense attorneys in several states and looking into the range of laws dealing with drunk driving. “60 Minutes” staffers found that while some states —most notably, Texas — have tried drunk drivers for murder, no one had ever been convicted on a murder charge.

“I think it's about something that hits most people's lives in some way or another,” Olian said of the story, whose airing was delayed last fall due to constantly breaking news on the economy and the presidential election. “And I think it's a societal problem that people don't really know how to deal with.”

Simon told the Herald that what he took away from the story was that the tragedy had two sides — Katie Flynn's horrific death and her family’s agony over it, and Heidgen's future. “He's also dead because he'll be in prison the rest of his life,” Simon said. “That's also a tragedy and a waste, even though I think he deserves it.”

While Lamagna declined comment on the report, Rice said that the show “did an exceptional job of showing the inevitable consequences of drunk driving. It highlighted a life-and-death issue that's happening in every community across the country.”

Asked why she thinks her campaign to more severely punish drunk drivers attracted so much attention, Rice said she believes that, historically, prosecutors have been reluctant to push the envelope on the issue.

“I think that's because there are still so many people who sympathize with the drunk driver,” she said, echoing a point she made on the show. “That is the mindset we are trying to change here, and that's why I think it has a national appeal.”

On Tuesday afternoon, less than 48 hours after the show aired, Rice said her office had received hundreds of calls and e-mails. “They were thanking us for our leadership on this issue,” she said, noting that the volume of comments was unusually high.

Within 24 hours of the broadcast, there were some 500 comments posted on the “60 Minutes” Web site. Olian said that most were from viewers who disagreed with Rice’s stance.

“People who disagree tend to post more on any story,” she said.

Neil Flynn did not return a call for comment, and Heidgen declined to appear on “60 Minutes” because his case is under appeal.

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