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Woman who did not properly secure nephews in seats before fatal crash was not reckless, SJC rules

A woman in Brimfield who failed to properly secure two young nephews inside a car before they were killed in a crash did not act in the “reckless” manner needed to support a conviction for involuntary manslaughter, the state’s highest court ruled Wednesday.

The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously overturned the conviction of Suzanne Hardy, who was behind the wheel of a car that crashed in Brimfield on June 20, 2014, killing her 4-year-old nephew, Dylan Riel.

A second nephew, Jayce Garcia, 16 months old, also died. Hardy was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter in his death by a Hampden Superior Court jury in 2015, the SJC noted.

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The crash, which left Hardy with severe injuries, also injured her 4-year-old son, who was riding in the rear seat with his two cousins, according to the SJC.

Prosecutors pursued charges of involuntary manslaughter on the grounds that Hardy’s inattentiveness while traveling at 55 miles per hour — coupled with the failure to comply with state law mandating proper safety seats for children — was reckless.

The children would not have suffered fatal injuries, prosecutors contended, if Hardy had not acted in a reckless manner by ignoring laws that required a booster seat for Riel and a rear-facing seat for Garcia.

Hardy’s son “was in the rear driver’s side of the vehicle in his booster seat, Jayce was in the frontfacing safety seat behind the front passenger’s seat with the straps set at an improper height, and Dylan was buckled into the rear middle seat with a shoulder and lap belt but no booster seat,” Justice Elspeth Cypher wrote for the court.

Hardy was traveling at the speed limit as a dump truck with a trailer was stopped ahead, waiting to make a left turn with its turn signal activated, the court said. Hardy approached the truck without slowing, swerved into a guardrail on the east side of the road, and caromed into the west side of the road, where she hit a car head-on.

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The SJC said that Massachusetts case law on involuntary manslaughter, dating back to the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire disaster in Boston, which left 492 people dead, cannot be applied to Hardy’s actions.

“This was not a situation where the defendant’s conduct had a likely consequence of substantial harm,’’ Cypher wrote. “There was not sufficient evidence for the jury to find that the defendant was aware, or that a reasonable person would have been aware, that failing to secure Dylan in a booster seat created a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result.”

Hardy was also convicted of reckless endangerment of a child. Both the involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment convictions were voided by the SJC.

“Our cases demonstrate that something much greater than negligence is necessary to affirm convictions of involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment of a child,’’ Cypher wrote.

The court left intact, however, her two convictions for negligent motor vehicle homicide.


John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.