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Drunken Driver Seeking New Trial

The Star Ledger Archive
COPYRIGHT © The Star Ledger 2002
Date: 2002/07/18 Thursday Page: 025 Section: COUNTY NEWS Edition: STATE Size: 738 words

He hopes appellate ruling bolsters case

By MARGARET McHUGH
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

Michael Homentosky says he takes full responsibility for killing a mother of three in a 1995 drunken driving crash, but he doesn’t want to accept the punishment.

Seven years into his 30-year sentence, Homentosky today will ask a judge to grant him a new trial, or at least to cut his prison term, which requires him to serve at least 15 years behind bars.

Homentosky, 43, has made that pitch before, without success, but now he has an April appellate court ruling to bolster his case. An appellate court overturned an aggravated manslaughter conviction against a South Jersey man whose passenger was killed in a January 1997 crash on the Garden State Parkway, ruling that the prosecution should not have been allowed to tell jurors that Benhart Bakka’s license was revoked in order to prove recklessness. A new trial was ordered.

Superior Court Judge Theodore Bozonelis, sitting in Morristown, allowed the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office to introduce Homentosky’s revoked license status as proof of recklessness in the 1996 trial, which ended with Homentosky convicted of aggravated manslaughter and death by auto, among other charges.

Joseph Bell, Homentosky’s attorney, will argue that Homentosky was prejudiced by that evidence, and either should get a new trial, or a lighter sentence.

But the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, backed by the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center, believes Homentosky’s conviction and punishment should stand.

Assistant Prosecutor Joseph D’Onofrio Jr. said Homentosky’s case differs from Bakka’s, in that many motorists witnessed Homentosky driving erratically as he sped along eastbound Route 10 in afternoon traffic on Feb. 22, 1995.

Homentosky, who had downed vodka while visiting his mother’s grave, ran a red light and slammed into a Jeep Cherokee at Dover-Chester Road in Randolph. His blood alcohol level was 0.21, more than twice the level at which one is considered drunk in New Jersey.

Teresa Wright, 39, and her three children were pulled from the burning vehicle, but she died three days later. William Wright, who in his wife’s memory successfully lobbied for tougher drunken driving laws in New Jersey, was hit by a car and killed in 1997 while jogging along the same stretch of Route 10.

“There were at least 10 eyewitnesses who testified as to the manner Homentosky was operating the vehicle,” D’Onofrio said. In the Bakka case, there was only one witness to the fatal crash, so the license revocation may have carried more weight.

D’Onofrio noted that the Attorney General’s Office is asking the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue of introducing a defendant’s revoked license as evidence since one appellate court ruled in the Homentosky case that it was okay, contrary to the Bakka ruling.

James Porfido, a former assistant prosecutor who prosecuted Homentosky, said Homentosky has no standing to make the argument for a new trial.

“He’s exhausted all his court remedies,” said Porfido, who, as a trustee of the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center, filed a brief in support of the prosecutor’s office’s position.

In court papers, D’Onofrio said the Bakka ruling should not be applied retroactively, especially since Homentosky previously made the same argument and lost.

Bell argued in legal papers that the Bakka ruling “sets forth a change in the law that makes it impermissible for a conviction of aggravated manslaughter to stand on the grounds that the requirement of recklessness was proven by the admission of evidence of a revoked license.”

However, D’Onofrio said eyewitness testimony provided proof of recklessness.

Bell also contended “the imposition of the maximum sentence for aggravated manslaughter was manifestly excessive.” Bell noted Homentosky “has now had more than seven years to rehabilitate himself,” participating in several self-help groups and one-on-one counseling.

“There is not a single day that he does not think of Terry Wright, her children, or her family, or feels great remorse for the harms he caused,” Bell said. Homentosky has said he wants to be an advocate against drunken driving when he is released from prison.

“The sentence, I believe, is manifestly fair,” D’Onofrio said.

Bozonelis will consider the conflicting positions at 1:30 p.m. today.

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