A manslaughter trial began Wednesday for an East Meadow man accused of racing with an off-duty police officer and being involved in a three-car crash that killed the off-duty officer and seriously injured a federal agent.
Jonathan Lopez, 22, appeared Oct. 30 to face charges of manslaughter, reckless driving, reckless endangerment, assault and marijuana possession. He remains free on $100,000 bond as testimony in the case continues before Judge Tammy Robbins at the Nassau County Court in Mineola.
Prosecutors allege Lopez and Kevin Jessup – an off-duty NYPD officer – were racing each other along the Southern State Parkway near the Bethpage Parkway just before 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2011. Two witnesses testified Wednesday that they observed the two driving speeds exceeding 90 mph.
“Their idea of fun was sheer horror for everyone on the road,” Nassau County Assistant District Attorney Michael Bushwack said in court. “They knew the risk and they disregarded it.”
Donna Panza, a 54-year-old Plainedge woman, was driving to work along the parkway that morning. She said she was driving east in her Mini Cooper when she saw two sets of headlights rapidly approaching her just past the Bethpage Parkway exit.
“They had to be doing over 100 easy,” Panza said on the witness stand. She testified the two vehicles sped past her before she turned a curve on the parkway and pulled up to a pile of mangled wreckage.
“There were parts all over the place,” she said. “I was just happy to be alive.”
According to state police, Lopez’s 2004 black Nissan 350-Z struck Jessup’s Nissan Maxima before rear-ending another vehicle. Prosecutors said Jessup, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from his car and died after suffering a skull fracture, a myriad of broken bones and a brain injury.
The operator of the third vehicle – identified by prosecutors as FBI Special Agent Dawn Smallwood – was seriously injured. Her government-issued Chevrolet Impala was hit with such force that it “obliterated her car,” Bushwack said.
Another witness in the case, Ronald Rodriguez, who also testified Wednesday, said he and his girlfriend witnessed the crash as it happened. “It looked like an explosion…sparks flying in every direction…it looked like a movie.”
State Police arrested Lopez immediately after the crash. Authorities said he gave a written statement to investigators and old them he was “in shock to be alive” after the crash.
“He knew how reckless racing on the parkway was, which is exactly why he did it,” Bushwack said. Prosecutors allege Lopez knew the risk and disregarded it.
Bushwack told jurors that if Jessup had not been killed in the crash, he too would have been indicted on criminal charges and would be “sitting right here next to this defendant.”
One of Lopez’s defense attorneys, Steven Epstein, argued his client had no intention to race with anyone that morning. “This case is not about racing…it’s about the cascade of bad choices made by Kevin Jessup,” he said.
Prosecutors acknowledged Wednesday Jessup had been out drinking throughout the night to celebrate his girlfriend’s birthday. They also conceded that he was intoxicated behind the wheel at the time of the crash. According to the defense, autopsy results showed the off-duty police officer had a blood-alcohol-content of .16 percent.
“He wasn’t trying to race. He was trying to get away from Kevin Jessup,” Epstein said of his client. “We’re not here looking for sympathy or mercy, just justice.”
Lopez’s other lawyer, Bruce Barket, noted inconsistencies in Rodriguez’s testimony Wednesday. The 27-year-old witness repeatedly changed answers during questioning after saying he was confused by the lawyer’s questions.
Barket said he expects his client will be fully acquitted of all charges in the case. Lopez declined to comment as he left the courthouse Wednesday evening.
Members of Jessup’s family, who attended the proceeding throughout the day, also declined comment.
Testimony in the case is expected to continue Thursday morning.