PA Superior Court Reverses Murder Conviction in Roosevelt Boulevard Drag Racing Case

 Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Akhmedov, finding that the Commonwealth failed to prove the charge of third degree murder where the defendant crashed into and killed pedestrians during a drag racing incident on Philadelphia’s Roosevelt Boulevard. The Court’s opinion details the type of evidence necessary for the prosecution to prove a third degree murder charge in a case involving reckless driving, drag racing, or a car accident.     

Commonwealth v. Ahkmedov

In Ahkmedov, the defendant was charged with multiple counts of third degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, homicide by vehicle, and recklessly endangering another person. The charges arose out of an incident which occurred on Roosevelt Boulevard. The defendant was driving southbound on the Boulevard, which has a speed limit of 40 miles per hour. At some point, the defendant began racing another driver. At each traffic light, the cars would rev their engines and race to the next light.

Police estimated that the cars traveled at around 70 miles per hour during the race. As the vehicles approached the intersection of the Boulevard and 2nd Street, the defendant began to travel at a minimum speed of 79 miles per hour. Although 79 miles per hour was nearly double the speed limit on that portion of the Boulevard, the evidence also showed that the intersection was not meant for pedestrian crossings. It did not have a crosswalk or signs warning drivers that pedestrians might be present. Unfortunately, Samara Banks and her three children were crossing the Boulevard as the defendant approached. The defendant attempted to swerve around them but was unable to do so. Instead, he struck Ms. Banks and her children, ultimately killing all four of them. The defendant remained at the scene and tried to render aid.   

Murder Charges for Drag Racing

Police arrested the defendant and charged him with homicide and the related charges. The defendant proceeded by way of bench trial, and the trial judge convicted the defendant of third degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, homicide by vehicle, and recklessly endangering another person. On appeal, the defendant challenged a number of evidentiary issues as well as whether the evidence was sufficient for a conviction on the third degree murder charges. Specifically, the defendant argued that the evidence failed to show that he acted with the necessary malice required to sustain a conviction for third degree murder because he did not operate his vehicle under circumstances which almost assured that injury or death would ensue.

The Defendant's Appeal

The Superior Court agreed and reversed the conviction for third degree murder. The Court noted that third degree murder occurs when a person commits a killing which is neither intentional nor committed during the perpetration of a felony, but contains the requisite malice. The definition of malice is well established in Pennsylvania, and courts have defined malice as follows:  

Malice exists where there is a wickedness of disposition, hardness of heart, cruelty, recklessness of consequences, and a mind regardless of social duty, although a particular person may not be intended to be injured. Where malice is based on a reckless disregard of consequences, it is not sufficient to show mere recklessness; rather, it must be shown the defendant consciously disregarded an unjustified and extremely high risk that his actions might cause death or serious bodily injury. A defendant must display a conscious disregard for almost certain death or injury such that it is tantamount to an actual desire to injure or kill; at the very least, the conduct must be such that one could reasonably anticipate death or serious bodily injury would likely and logically result. 

Obviously, there was no real dispute as to whether or not the defendant acted recklessly. Driving twice the speed limit through an intersection as part of a drag race was clearly reckless. However, in order for recklessness to qualify as malice, Pennsylvania courts have required the prosecution to prove “sustained, purposeful recklessness” such that the defendant must have known of and consciously disregarded the risk that death or serious bodily injury was reasonably certain to occur.

Generally, this level of sustained, purposeful recklessness requires factors like a “near miss,” a warning from a bystander or passenger to slow down and a decision to ignore the warning, and evidence that the defendant clearly saw and recognized the dangers. Finally, in almost every case in which the defendant was properly convicted of third degree murder as a result of a car accident, the prosecution was able to show that the defendant was intoxicated.  

Insufficient Evidence of Malice

In this case, the Court found that the prosecution did not establish the requisite level of recklessness. The defendant was reckless in driving at excessive speeds, but he did not have a near miss, he was not warned to slow down, and he was not intoxicated. He attempted to avoid hitting the victims but was unable to do so. Further, the pedestrians were crossing the road at an intersection where they should not have been crossing, and they were wearing dark clothes at night. Finally, the defendant stopped and attempted to assist them after he struck them.

Although the defendant had been pulled over for speeding as part of a road rage incident a week before, the prior traffic stop was not close enough in time to satisfy the “near miss” requirement or show that the defendant was aware of the likelihood of injuring a pedestrian at that particular location where the accident occurred. The Court concluded that the defendant’s recklessness satisfied the mens rea elements for the lesser included charges like manslaughter and recklessly endangering another person, but it did not satisfy the heightened mens rea requirement for murder.   

Because the third degree murder charge was the most serious charge, the court remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing on the remaining charges. The court did not find that the Commonwealth failed to prove all of the charges; just that they failed to prove the third degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, it is clear that murder requires something more than recklessness. Instead, it requires the prosecution to prove malice. 

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