Out of Jail on Bond

October 19, 2006

Karen Fisher, who was accused of killing a 79-year-old priest while driving drunk in Springs, was released from the Suffolk County jail in Riverside on Friday. She had spent nearly three months in the maximum-security facility when she posted a $750,000 bond last week.

At a press conference after Ms. Fisher's arraignment in August, the county district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, had said he would consider bringing a murder case against Ms. Fisher. On Tuesday, however, Robert Clifford, Mr. Spota's spokesman, said the D.A. would not seek aFisher second-degree murder case before a grand jury.

East Hampton Town police arrested Ms. Fisher on July 18 at home on Woodbine Drive, after, they said, she struck Msgr. William Costello on the same street as he was taking a walk. Police said Ms. Fisher left the scene and that they found her minivan, which was severely damaged, in her driveway.

Melissa Price, the assistant district attorney handling the case, said shortly after Monsignor Costello's death that Ms. Fisher did not try to help him. Police said her blood alcohol content was .28 percent at the time of her arrest, over three times the legal limit.

Ms. Fisher did not have a valid driver's license at the time, as East Hampton Town Justice Catherine A. Cahill had suspended it in April after Ms. Fisher was charged with driving while intoxicated. Ms. Fisher had also pleaded guilty to driving while ability impaired, a violation, in a plea arrangement in 2004.

On the night of July 18, she was charged with driving while intoxicated. The next week the district attorney's office presented a manslaughter case to a grand jury, which indicted her on felony charges of second-degree manslaughter, second-degree vehicular manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident, driving with a suspended license, and driving while intoxicated.

Jason Bassett of Central Islip, then Ms. Fisher's court-appointed attorney, entered not-guilty pleas on all charges at her arraignment in Suffolk County Criminal Court in Riverhead on Aug. 3. County Judge Robert W. Doyle set her bail at $250,000 cash.

Ms. Fisher's new attorney, Michael Jannuzzi of Huntington, requested a bail hearing, and on Sept. 27 Judge John J.J. Jones Jr. established new bail: $750,000 bond or $250,000 cash. A stipulation of her release is that she show up for court proceedings, such as a pre-trial conference scheduled yesterday. A trial date has not yet been set.

Calls to Ms. Fisher and her attorney this week were not returned.

When asked to comment, Deena Cohen, the president of the Long Island chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which is based in Huntington Station, said she wished that the laws were Fishers Cardifferent, but that she felt there was not enough evidence for the district attorney to bring murder charges against Ms. Fisher.

"It doesn't meet the criteria for murder," she said. The prosecutor would have to prove that Ms. Fisher was "aiming" her car at the priest and had been "intent on killing somebody - there must be intent."

"They can't prove that," Ms. Cohen said. Nevertheless, driving drunk "is the same as pointing your gun and shooting someone," she went on. "If you drink and drive it shows intent, but that's not how the law reads right now."

Martin Hiegen, who was convicted of murder in Nassau County on Tuesday, had "articulated that he wanted to kill himself and would take anyone else with him" before he took the lives of a 7-year-old and a limousine driver while driving drunk. "That's another story."

Ms. Cohen said she is worried that Ms. Fisher is no longer behind bars. "We're not happy about releasing any drunk drivers, especially with somebody with a higher B.A.C.," Ms. Cohen said, referring to Ms. Fisher's blood alcohol content at the time of the accident.

"I'm thinking about speaking with the legislators" and suggesting that people in the community be notified when people convicted of drunken driving are released from jail, in much the same way that neighbors are notified when convicted sex offenders are released.

"You have a right know ... don't let your children ride their bikes in the streets," she said. "I think [Ms. Fisher's release is] a threat to the public and, like I said, I'm not happy about it."