Dennis Drue’s lawyer is requesting his trial be taken out of Saratoga County, claiming the publicity surrounding the accident he is accused of causing and the resulting deaths of two popular Shenedehowa students will bias prospective jurors.
Defense attorney Steve Coffey believes the tragic Dec. 1 Northway crash resonated throughout the county and touched the lives of many. He says the breadth of the tragedy and the publicity surrounding it will taint any jury pool that could be selected in the case, which is expected to go to trial Sept. 30.
“It would be best to try this case in a county that is distant and not affected by the publicity that was generated by this case,” Coffey said. “This tragedy absolutely consumed the entire county.”
Coffey filed a motion at the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court in Albany late Thursday afternoon. County prosecutors will now have up to eight days to file a response to the motion before the justices make a ruling.
Coffey said people empaneled on the jury are bound to know someone affected by the deaths of high school seniors Deana Rivers and Chris Stewart. Both were very active in the community, as were their classmate Matthew Hardy and Shaker High School senior Bailey Wind, who were badly injured in the same crash.
Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III said he believes Coffey is premature in asking for a change of venue since the attorneys haven’t even attempted to select a jury. But also, he isn’t convinced the publicity around the case will bias prospective jurors.
“The standard isn’t just if they’ve heard about it or if they’ve been moved by the story,” said Murphy, who intends to oppose Coffey’s motion. “The standard is if they can they be fair and impartial.”
If a change of venue is granted, the trial will almost assuredly be postponed.
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 Drue was speeding in a 2004 Volvo S60 in the far left northbound lane of Interstate 87 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 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. Rivers, a 17-year-old Shen softball player who was a passenger in the back seat, was flung from the wreck and also died.
Wind, Stewart’s 17-year-old girlfriend, sustained a serious neck injury. 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.
The crash left a community in mourning and students rallying behind their badly injured classmates. Students successfully took to Twitter to convince then-New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow to call Hardy at his Albany Medical Center hospital room and then did the same for Wind with Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin.
Students throughout Saratoga County coordinated to wear Shen green and Shaker blue to show their solidarity for the two affected districts. And just four days after the accident, Shenedehowa hosted a candlelight vigil at the district’s football field that drew an estimated 10,000 people.
Funeral services for Stewart and Rivers drew thousands of mourners. The students were also recognized by schools throughout the Capital Region, including members of the Siena’s basketball team.
“In our view, there really isn’t a way [Drue] can get a fair trial in Saratoga County,” Coffey said.