A Suffolk judge took the unusual step Tuesday of agreeing to release grand jury testimony to the attorneys representing the limousine driver involved in last summer’s fatal crash on Route 48 in Cutchogue.
The limousine driver, Carlos Pino, 59, of Old Bethpage, and his attorneys, Larry Lato and Brendan Ahern, appeared before Judge Fernando Camacho in 1st District Court in Central Islip Tuesday for a conference on motions in the criminal case against him.
While Judge Camacho described his decision as a “rare occurrence,” he said he believes it’s important for Mr. Pino’s attorneys to be able to “cite actual testimony” submitted to the grand jury as opposed to making assumptions as they defend him. The testimony can also be used in a new motion by Mr. Pino’s attorneys to dismiss the charges against him.
“I think they should have an opportunity to address the evidence,” Judge Camacho said, adding that this is the first time in his 20-year tenure he has agreed to release such documents.
The judge said his office will redact witness names and release copies to the defense by the end of the week. In addition, he said testimony about a recent reconstruction and re-enactment of the accident will be included.
The July 18, 2015 crash took the lives of Brittney Schulman, 23, of Smithtown; Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack.
Injured but surviving the crash were four additional passengers: Joelle DiMonte, 25, of Elwood; Melissa Crai, 23, of Scarsdale, N.Y.; Alicia Arundel, 24, of Setauket; and Olga Lipets, 24, of Brooklyn.
The eight women had hired Mr. Pino, an employee of Ultimate Class Limousine in Hicksville, for a Saturday afternoon of visits to North Fork tasting spots. The limo had just left nearby Vineyard 48 and the women were headed home when Mr. Pino attempted the U-turn.
As Steven Romeo, 55, of Peconic approached the westbound intersection in his 2005 Dodge Dakota, the turning limousine blocked his lane of travel, prosecutors have said. Mr. Romeo still faces a grand jury indictment on two counts of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated and is due back in court for a hearing Sept. 7.
On Tuesday, Judge Camacho said the grand jury minutes are not to be duplicated and only to be shared among attorneys involved in the case, as well as accident reconstruction experts.
Judge Camacho did not, however, agree to release the instructions provided to the grand jurors about a 2006 Court of Appeals case that dismissed a criminally negligent homicide charge against limousine driver James McGrantham, who was involved in the fatal accident of a motorcyclist on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn. According to that ruling, Mr. McGrantham’s decision to make a U-turn across three lanes of traffic and “was not wise, but it does not rise to the level of moral blameworthiness required to sustain a charge of criminally negligent homicide.”
Mr. Pino’s attorneys had filed a motion in June to have the case against their client dropped using the McGrantham case as the basis for dismissal.
Witnesses who testified before the grand jury in Mr. Pino’s case, including a driver and three passengers waiting behind the limousine in an eastbound turning lane on Route 48, stated that Mr. Pino attempted to make a U-turn at the Depot Lane intersection despite having a “limited sight line,” Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota has said. A westbound Jeep Liberty attempting to make a left-hand turn off Route 48 to head south on Depot Lane obstructed Mr. Pino’s view, he said. Despite this, Mr. Pino attempted to make the U-turn without ever coming to a full stop, the DA added.
When asked for comment about Judge Camacho’s decision Tuesday, Mr. Lato said “it speaks for itself” and declined further comment.
While speaking with reporters outside the courtroom, assistant district attorney John Scott Prudenti’s only comment was to “highlight that the grand jury was fairly and properly instructed on McGrantham and the state of the law in New York.”
Mr. Pino is due back in court Sept. 8.
Photo: Carlos Pino at his arraignment before Judge Camacho on March 16. (Credit: James Carbone/Newsday pool photo)