Trial begins in fatal DWI case in Westchester

UPDATE: KIAHA CONVICTED OF ALL BUT ONE COUNT IN 2009 DWI DEATH

There is no discernable proof that George Kiaha (left) was drunk when he caused the head-on crash that killed a retired auto worker from Peekskill, Kiaha’s defense lawyer told a jury today.

“Respect the presumption of innocence,” attorney Ted Brundage said during his opening at Kiaha’s felony trial for vehicular manslaughter in Westchester County Court.

Kiaha, a Garrison resident, is also facing a felony charge of criminally negligent homicide and misdemeanor counts of drunken driving and assault for the Sept. 4, 2009 that killed Ralph Wood, 55, and injured his family on Route 9 in Cortlandt.

Police said Kiaha, now 25, was driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.11 percent that night. The legal threshold for driving while intoxicated is 0.08 percent.

Brundage suggested that sloppy police work puts the blood-alcohol report in question. He said the case had “some of the most egregious gaps in evidence in terms of a New York State police investigation” that he has seen in his 20 years as a lawyer.

But Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Strongin argued that police handled the evidence properly, and that an ambulance worker smelled alcohol on Kiaha’s breath as he was taken to Westchester Medical Center.

“Ralph Wood died on Sept, 4 because the defendant chose to drink and drive,” he said in his opening statement. Kiaha is free on $50,000 bail.

Wood, a retired General Motors assembly line worker, was headed to dinner at the Wapppingers Buffet in Dutchess County with three of his grandchildren, his daughter Gloria and her fiancee. The family usually went to dinner together every Saturday night, Strongin said, but they headed out a day earlier because they had other plans the next night.

“This would be the last time the six of them would ever be together again,” he said.

As the family approached Susan Lane on Route 9, Kiaha smashed into the silver GMC driven by Javier A. DeJesus of Cortlandt, Wood’s future son-in-law.

Everyone in the GMC was injured, and Wood’s daughter was trapped inside. Wood, unbeknownst to those at the scene, had a ruptured spleen and was bleeding internally. He went into cardiac arrest and died.

Kiaha was seriously hurt in the crash and was taken to Westchester Medical Center.

Wood was described by friends and relatives as a fun-loving man dedicated to his five children and grandchildren. Several family members were in the courtroom to show support for the family patriarch.

The trial, before Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli, will continue Friday.