Cabrera wins in court, conviction dismissed
By Jeanne Sager
MONTICELLO May 6, 2008 The highest court in the state has rewritten history for Brett Cabrera.
Almost four years ago, Cabrera lost control of his Mercury Mountaineer on a curve on Sackett Lake Road.
The then 17-year-old lived to tell the tale. Three of his four passengers 15-year-old Ashley Morgan, 14-year-old Sierra Cerrone and 17-year-old Max Gonzalez were pronounced dead at the scene.
Four years later, the accident that sent Cabrera to a maximum security prison for two years has been called just that an accident.
With a narrow 4-3 decision, the New York State Court of Appeals dismissed Cabrera’s vehicular homicide conviction last week.
“Simply put,” the judges said, “Cabrera’s failure to ensure that his passengers wore seat belts was not conduct causing or contributing to the risk of an automobile accident; the fact that Cabrera’s passengers were teenagers likewise did not cause or contribute to the crash.”
Liberty attorney Gerald Orseck argued in front of the appeals panel that violating New York State junior driver’s license stipulations that a driver ensure passengers wear seatbelts and limit the number of riders under 21 in their car is worth a fine of $20 or $50.
It doesn’t, he said, make them responsible for the lives of the people in the car.
“Just because a death results from an accident doesn’t mean it was anything more than an accident,” Orseck said. “In order to prove something criminal, there had to be something extremely reckless like two cars drag-racing side-by-side or driving at a very high rate of speed 90 or 100 miles per hour or driving through a red light.”
In fact, police testified in Cabrera’s trial in Sullivan County Court that the then teenager was driving well above the posted speed limit when he failed to negotiate the curve, hitting both a telephone pole and an apple tree before the SUV came to a stop.
The teens who perished in the accident were not wearing their safety belts, police said.
For that matter, there were four teens in the car in addition to Cabrera two more than the law allows.
“This behavior is certainly negligent and unquestionably ‘blameworthy,’” wrote Judge Susan Phillips Read. “But our decisions have uniformly looked for some kind of morally blameworthy component to excessive speed in determining criminal negligence; for example, consciously accelerating in the presence of an obvious risk… no such morally blameworthy behavior could be inferred from the testimony in this case.”
“This was a high-accident part of the highway,” Orseck said. “The place is a dip and a curve on a back road.
“This was a simple accident,” he continued. “At most, he was going 70 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone which everyone has done.”
Orseck called the time Cabrera spent as a teenager albeit one above the age of minority in a maximum security prison to be a travesty of justice.
“The department of corrections, when it sees the word homicide makes no distinction,” he said. “They saw vehicular homicide and threw him in with killers, murderers.”
Cabrera was released two years shy of the maximum four-year sentence imposed by Judge Frank LaBuda, but he’s been reporting monthly to a parole officer in Florida and paying $100 in monthly supervision fees.
Sullivan County District Attorney Steve Lungen has no recourse at this point, but said he was deeply upset by the court’s decision.
He told the New York Law Journal the state’s graduated licensing system was designed to prevent tragedies like the accident that claimed the lives of three Monticello teens four years ago.
“The very harm that the [New York State] Legislature tried to prevent, this defendant committed and the court has now found that it doesn’t matter, that it still was insufficient,” Lungen said.
For the families of the victims, the dismissal has put fear back in their hearts.
Ashley Morgan’s stepfather, Joe Kenny, spoke on behalf of his family and that of Sierra Cerrone when he said the court has taken the muscle out of campaigns in the area focused on turning teens into more responsible drivers.
“We’re just afraid these kids will say, ‘Hey, he got off,’” Kenny said. “We want parents to talk to their kids about this.
“If we have to push for stricter laws, more restrictions on a junior license, we’ll do what we have to do,” he continued.
Cabrera has never formally apologized to the families for the incidents of June 14, Kenny said, and it’s painful to face a court that says what he did does not qualify as breaking the law.
“It’s really ripped our scab right off,” Kenny noted.
The Cabrera family has left Rock Hill, and the now 21-year-old has been doing odd jobs of late Orseck said, unable to find stable employment because applicants are asked if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime.
With the court’s ruling behind him, Cabrera will be going to school to become an occupational therapist.