An East Amherst woman who crashed into a guardrail and fatally struck a bicyclist in Riverside was acquitted Tuesday of vehicular manslaughter and drug- impaired driving.
Jurors deliberated about an hour and a half in State Supreme Court before finding Laura J. Galluzzo, 27, not guilty.
Galluzzo struck Christopher J. Cevaer, 49, with her rental car near the foot of Ontario Street late on the night of July 19, 2011. Police have said Cevaer was either sitting or standing with his bicycle near the guardrail when he was struck.
Prosecutors charged Galluzzo after toxicology tests revealed the presence of both Valium and Ativan in her system.
After delivering their verdict, several jurors said they did not hear enough about the prescription drugs’ effect on Galluzzo nor the details of how the crash occurred.
“We had no clue what happened at the accident scene,” said juror Tim Hartnett of the Town of Tonawanda.
During the five-day trial before Justice Christopher J. Burns, defense attorneys also chipped away at what they called the prosecution’s portrayal of Galluzzo as a “cold, calculating drug addict.”
Galluzzo had legal prescriptions for the drugs, said her defense attorneys, Leonard E. Krawczyk Jr. and Michael L. D’Amico.
Given her tolerance to the drugs, the amounts detected in her system were not enough to impair her, they said.
“Every time you learned a little more about the case, it wasn’t as cut and dried,” Krawczyk told jurors during his closing argument. “There’s doubt all over this case.”
Striking the bicyclist with the 2010 Hyundai Elantra was an accident, her attorneys said. “There is no question this was a tragedy,” Krawczyk said. “There is no question it was an accident.”
Krawczyk told jurors there was no reason to put the nursing student behind bars. Had the jury convicted her, she would have faced seven years in prison.
Galluzzo did not testify in her own defense. Neither she nor Cevaer’s family members wished to comment after the verdict.
Assistant District Attorney Bethany A. Solek told jurors that nothing but drug impairment explains why Galluzzo veered into a guardrail along a 282-foot straight and level road without seeing the bicyclist, who was wearing a yellow shirt.
“She had powerful drugs coursing through her veins,” said Solek, who prosecuted Galluzzo with Christopher J. Belling, a senior trial counsel in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.
“She hit him dead-on,” Solek said, describing to jurors how Cevaer’s skull was crushed as he catapulted onto her hood and hit the windshield.
Police found no brake marks. “There’s no excuse why a sober, non-impaired, alert driver couldn’t have stopped,” Solek said.
Tests revealed that Cevaer, a former Niagara Falls resident and a longtime cleaner for the Grand Island schools, was intoxicated.
Galluzzo had a “dazed and drowsy” look at the scene of the crash, Solek said.
Solek scoffed at the defense’s portrayal of Galluzzo as “some poor, debilitated girl,” immune to the effects of her prescription drugs.
Galluzzo was injected with the prescription medication Ativan at about 6:30 p.m. at Millard Fillmore Hospital. Ativan is used to treat anxiety disorders or anxiety associated with depression.
Hours later, she left a relative’s home and was on her way back to a motel where she was staying; the crash happened at about 10:30 p.m.
Given her tolerance and the time that had elapsed since she received the injection, the drug could not have impaired her ability to drive, Krawczyk said.
After the verdict, Krawczyk said Galluzzo’s pain management physician, Mikhail Strut of Cheektowaga, provided pivotal testimony.
Galluzzo suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder marked by extremely loose joints that can be easily dislocated, her lawyers said.
Strut specializes in treating ligaments, and he made as many as 32 injections using 4-inch needles into ligaments in her lower back and other parts of her body during her weekly appointments between 2010 and 2012.
“Her condition is very painful,” Strut testified.
Strut did not prescribe all the medications Galluzzo was on, but he said he was familiar with her prescriptions from other doctors.
He said he was concerned about her depression last year and conducted random screens to make sure she was taking the appropriate amounts of her prescription drugs.
Strut appeared as a defense witness, but he was not paid to testify.
As for the levels of prescribed drugs detected in her system hours after the crash, the amounts “would not impair her ability to operate a motor vehicle,” Strut said.
Prosecutors sought to discredit Strut’s testimony, questioning him about his bias in favor of a former patient.
Belling brought up Strut’s censure and reprimand in 2009 for helping operators of a crooked medical clinic defraud the federal government’s Medicare system of $131,413. Federal prosecutors in 2009 said he signed numerous phony documents in 2003 and 2004 certifying that he had provided physical therapy treatment to patients.
Strut, whose last name then was Strutsovskiy, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of filing a false statement relating to health care.
He reimbursed the government, paid a fine and was placed on three years’ probation.
At Galluzzo’s trial, he testified that he committed the crime and declined to cooperate with federal officials because of threats to his family from Russian criminals.
Hartnett, the juror, said the jury found Strut credible.
“We believed the scientific part,” Hartnett said. “He was believable.”