Trial in deadly Northway crash to stay in Saratoga County
ALBANY Dennis Drue will stand trial in Saratoga County after justices with the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court rejected a defense motion for a change of venue.
The decision handed down Friday morning affirms the prosecution’s assertion Drue — accused of causing the crash that claimed the lives of two popular Shenedahowa students — can get a fair trial in Saratoga County. Defense attorney Steve Coffey argued the publicity surrounding the fatal accident would bias prospective jurors, making it impossible for Drue to receive impartial treatment.
District Attorney James Murphy III was pleased with the decision, which clears the way for Drue’s trial to proceed later this month. He said many other high-profile cases have been fairly tried in the county despite the publicity surrounding them.
“[The Appellate Division] upheld our argument, which is that the standard is not how high profile or how notorious the case is,” he said. “The standard is whether the defendant can get a fair trial.”
Murphy said the change of venue request was also premature. He said asking to move the trial before jury selection is presumptuous.
“We want the defendant to have a fair trial,” he said. “Our obligation is to seek justice, and that includes making sure we have an impartial jury.”
Jury selection in the case is scheduled to begin Sept. 30.
Coffey did not return a call for comment Friday.
Drue, 23, of Halfmoon, was indicted on 59 counts in January, including aggravated vehicular homicide. If convicted, he could face as much as 25 years in prison.
Eyewitness accounts given to police indicated that on Dec. 1, 2012, Drue was speeding in a 2004 Volvo S60 in the far left northbound lane of the Northway when he abruptly moved across the middle lane and into the far right lane. The Volvo then clipped the rear of a 2000 Ford Explorer in that lane being driven by Chris Stewart, causing it to flip several times before coming to rest on the side of the highway.
Stewart, a 17-year-old captain of the Shenendehowa High School football team, was killed in the crash. Deana Rivers, a 17-year-old Shen softball player who was a passenger in the back seat, was flung from the wreck and also died.
Bailey Wind, Stewart’s 17-year-old girlfriend, sustained a serious neck injury. Matt Hardy, 17, Stewart’s teammate and Rivers’ boyfriend, was partially thrown from the vehicle and sustained several broken bones.
The four were returning after watching Siena College’s basketball team play the University at Albany at the Times Union Center. They were en route to Rivers’ home in Halfmoon when the crash occurred just a short distance from Exit 8.
At the time of the crash, Drue allegedly had alcohol in his system and was initially accused of driving while intoxicated by state police. Drue wasn’t formally charged, however, until more than a month after the crash.
At trial, prosecutors are hoping to admit thousands of text messages Drue sent between October 2012 and when investigators seized his iPhone at Ellis Hospital just hours after the wreck.
State police also recovered small amounts of marijuana from Drue’s vehicle. At a pre-trial hearing, prosecutors indicated they planned to admit a text message exchange between Drue and another person in which they discussed plans to smoke a marijuana cigar in the hours before the crash.
Very rarely is a change of venue granted in New York. Murphy couldn’t recall a case in Saratoga County in which a trial was moved elsewhere.
“To say that it’s rarely granted is an understatement,” he said.
In the Capital Region, the last notable change of venue was granted during the trial of now-convicted ax murderer Christopher Porco. The Appellate Division moved the high-profile trial from Albany County to Orange County, citing the identity of the victims, the nature of the crime and “the intense, localized and prejudicial pretrial publicity” surrounding the case.
Moving the Porco trial out of the Albany also proved to be costly. The county’s comptroller later determined the change of venue cost the county an additional $118,000.