A New York City teenager was high on marijuana and speeding when he slammed into a tree, splitting his new car in two and killing four of his friends, a defense attorney conceded Thursday, but he insisted pot was not the reason for the crash.
"This case was not caused by marijuana," attorney Todd Greenberg said in opening statements in the trial of Joseph Beer. The 19-year-old New Yorker from the borough of Queens has pleaded not guilty to charges including aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and driving while intoxicated by drugs.
Beer was 17 when, prosecutors say, he drove in excess of 100 mph on the Southern State Parkway on Long Island, smashing into a tree. The crash happened on a stretch of highway dubbed "Dead Man's Curve" because of a treacherous hill that leads to a sharp curve in the highway. The spectacular crash cut the high-performance Subaru in half, killing the four boys instantly.
Greenberg said he intends to call emergency workers and people who live near the area to testify to back his contention that numerous accidents have occurred at the location.
"It's immature youth vs. speed, and speed meets a dangerous curve," he said of the circumstances that preceded the crash.
Nassau County Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Palma said her opening statement that Beer and his four friends thought it would be thrilling to get high and drive fast. She said Beer was "showing his friends just how fast this car could go" when he smashed into the tree. "He was far too high and he was driving far too fast," the prosecutor said.
As Palma spoke in excruciating detail about the injuries suffered by the four passengers — three 18-year-olds and a 17-year-old who were thrown from the car on impact — Beer wiped tears from his eyes.
Greenberg said he would also call witnesses to dispute that the amount of marijuana found in his client's system — a trace, he said — would have had a debilitating effect on the teenager's driving.
"The issue is actual impairment, not ingestion," he said.
Beer's parents, who were in the courtroom for the opening statements, were initially charged with a traffic violation for allowing their son to drive with only a learner's permit in the crash that happened at about 3:30 in the morning. Those charges were later dropped.
They did not speak to reporters.
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who is running for Congress, sat in the first row of the gallery for the opening statements, but declined to speak with reporters as she left the courtroom. Rice has made prosecution of alleged drunken drivers a cornerstone during her three terms as the suburban county's prosecutor.
If convicted of all charges, Beer faces up to 25 years in prison.