On June 14, 2004, night club owner Neville Wells struck with his vehicle and and killed 37-year-old Judith Gubernikoff on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A grand jury charged him with one count of murder in the second degree and assault in the first degree (both under depraved indifference theories), and one count each of vehicular manslaughter in the second degree, vehicular assault in the second degree, and assault in the second degree.
The defendant “benched” the case and a trial was held without a jury before the Hon. Richard Carruthers beginning on May 3, 2005. According to the trial transcript, Wells blew through a red light and hit the vehicle in which Ms. Gubernikoff and her father were riding. Eyewitnesses stated that Wells was driving very fast at the time of the accident, completely disregarded the semaphore in the intersection, and was completely incoherent immediately after the accident. In fact, Wells’ blood alcohol content at the time he was tested shortly after the accident was between .25% and .27%, which is more than three times the legal limit.
After trial, Wells was convicted of Murder in the Second Degree under a “depraved indifference” theory and sentenced by the judge to concurrent indeterminate prison terms of from seventeen years to life. Wells appealed his conviction directly to the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, arguing that “that the evidence [was] insufficient to sustain conviction of murder in the second degree and assault in the second degree because it failed to establish that his conduct was so morally deficient and devoid of concern for life as to warrant exposing him to the same criminal liability that the law imposes for intentional conduct.” See People v. Wells, 53 A.D. 3d 181 (1st Dep’t 2008). Additionally, before his appeal was decided in the intermediate appellate court, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, decided People v. Feingold, 7 N.Y.3d 288 (2006), which overturned People v. Register 60 N.Y.2d 270 (1983). After Feingold, the standard for depraved indifference crimes to require courts to look at the mental state from a subjective point of view, finding guilty only where the particular defendant demonstrates “‘a willingness to act not because [he] intends harm, but because [he] simply doesn’t care whether grievous harm results or not . . . . A defendant must possess an “utter disregard for the value of human life . . . embodied in conduct that is so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, and so blameworthy as to render the actor as culpable as one’ who intends the result of his acts.” Wells v. Perez, 10 Civ. 1107 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (Report and Recommendation of Francis IV, J.).