BATH, N.Y. (WETM) – Dustin Drake, the man charged in a DWI crash that killed 4 people in 2019, has been found not guilty on all counts, including aggravated vehicular homicide, manslaughter, and aggravated DWI.
The verdict came after the jury submitted its final note to the court, asking “Does our verdict have to be based on facts only or can it be what we believe?” Judge Chauncey Watches told the jury in part: “Your role is to determine what the facts are, the evidence or lack of evidence. Apply those facts as you find them according to the law. Please continue your deliberations.”
About 30 minutes later, a new note from the jury announced it had reached a verdict. During the trial, there have been at least two Sheriff’s deputies present in the courtroom. Before the verdict was read, a total of seven Sheriff’s deputies were brought in. As 15 not guilty verdicts were read by the jury foreman, Dustin Drake started crying. His mother, who has been seated behind him during the proceedings with his father, was also in tears.
After nearly two weeks of testimony, defense attorney Ray Schlather convinced the jury there was not enough evidence to prove Dustin Drake was in the driver’s seat, when his car slammed into a tree in Pulteney after 1 a.m. on October 12, 2019. The impact killed 28-year-old Korbie Higgins, 26-year-old Coy F. Miner Jr, 25 year old Nicole Wise, and 29 year old Adam Bellamy. Drake was found about 150 feet away from the wreckage with minor injuries.
Investigators say nobody saw Mr. Drake get in his car and drive away. A mix of 4 DNA traces were found on the steering wheel airbag. One DNA trace was matched to Drake. The other 3 traces were not identified. The driver’s side door handles and car keys were not tested for DNA or fingerprints. To figure out who was seated where, the case largely focused on the condition of the seatbelts, which ones showed evidence of being buckled in, and how they matched the injuries of the occupants.
“I think what’s clear is that because of the circumstances of this case, putting anyone in the driver’s seat through eyewitness testimony was impossible” said defense attorney Ray Schlather. “So the case had to be built on the physical and scientific evidence. And this was, I think, a very strong case where science played an important role, because the science clearly established who the driver was, and it wasn’t Dustin Drake.” Schlather told 18 News reporter Nicolas Dubina shortly after the verdict.
According to Mr. Schlather, Nicole Wise was driving Mr. Drake’s Dodge Caliber after all five occupants left a bar. Mr. Schlather focused on the possibility the driver’s seatbelt was buckled in before the crash, but unlatched during the collision. Mr. Schlather told the jury the vehicle’s center console slammed into the right side of the driver’s seatbelt with such force that it caused the buckle to come loose. Mr. Schlather told the jury Nicole Wise “left her seat before the accident was completed” due to her being partially restrained by the seatbelt during the collision. “The seatbelt took a beating” Mr. Schlather stated. He told the jury that scenario could explain why Ms. Wise did not appear to have injuries consistent with a driver’s side seatbelt. Mr. Schlather told the jury Dustin Drake was seated in the rear driver’s side passenger seat, and was buckled in. According to testimony, Mr. Drake had injuries that were consistent with wearing a seatbelt.
During close arguments, Mr. Schlather also focused on a wallet belonging to Ms. Wise. Mr. Schlather told the jury the wallet was initially found near the vehicle’s center console, before it was moved by a paramedic at the scene. Mr. Schlather stated: “Nobody knows if the wallet was in the console. But if you’re driving a car and you have a wallet, you’re going to throw it in the console.”
The defense also noted the driver’s seat is designed to not move from its position during a collision. Mr. Schlather told the jury the driver’s seat was “in the same position before and after the crash”. He noted Mr. Drake is 6 foot 1 and weighs approximately 250 pounds. Mr. Schlather told the jury there is “no way” Mr. Drake would have fit into the driver’s seat. He suggested it was Ms. Wise who adjusted the driver’s seat before driving the vehicle
During closing arguments, the prosecution told the jury there was “no question” Drake was behind the wheel, even though nobody saw him get in the car and drive away. The prosecution told the jury it proved Drake had the intention of driving that night. Monroe County Assistant District Attorney Drew Kroft reminded the jury of testimony from bar employees who said Mr. Drake was holding his car keys as he was about to leave. A bar employee also testified that Mr. Drake stated that he “had to drive too” as he ordered another drink before last call. A bartender testified Mr. Drake had “2 or more drinks”. Evidence shows his blood alcohol content was .21. During prior testimony, defense attorney Ray Schlather noted the other 4 occupants of the vehicle also had blood alcohol levels that were significantly higher than the legal limit of .08. Korbie Higgins had a BAC of .23. Adam Bellamy had a BAC of .21. Nicole Wise had a BAC of .16. Coy F. Miner Jr. had a BAC of .11.
Prosecutor Kroft also noted Mr. Drake was seen walking in the direction of his car, a Dodge Caliber, with Adam Bellamy. According to testimony, Mr. Drake was walking on his own and was not being carried or assisted in any way. Mr. Kroft told the jury “there is no reason Mr. Drake would give up his keys to anybody else” who was also intoxicated.
A crash reconstruction investigator also testified that based on his analysis, Drake was the person behind the wheel. The investigator also testified Drake had a right ankle fracture, which he described as “very common injury” for drivers in crashes due to the right foot being on the gas or brake pedal at the time of collision.
Mr. Kroft told the jury that according to testimony from the first paramedics at the scene, Nicole Wise and Korbie Higgins were first found in the rear seat area of the vehicle before their bodies were extricated and placed on the grass near the vehicle. According to the prosecution, Korbie Higgins was seated in the driver’s side rear passenger seat. Nicole Wise was seated in the middle seat. Coy F. Miner Jr. was seated in the right rear passenger seat. Prosecutors say all three were not wearing seatbelts. Coy F. Miner Jr. was found trapped inside the wreckage. Adam Bellamy was found on the road, still strapped into the front passenger seat.
“The only thing I really have to say about the verdict is that we have to accept the verdict.” said special prosecutor Ray Benitez, who is the Chief of the DWI bureau for Monroe County. “We have the best criminal justice system there is in the world. And with that said, they just have to respect the verdict. It doesn’t mean that we agree with the verdict. Obviously, we do not agree with the verdict, but we have to accept it. We believe that the evidence was to prove each and every element beyond a reasonable doubt. But this is the process that we have, and we have to accept the verdict.” said Benitez.
Mr. Drake did not take the stand in his own defense. In prior testimony, he told investigators the last thing he remembered was “being in a passenger seat” and then waking up on the grass after the crash.
After the jury was dismissed, defense attorney Schlather told the Judge that Mr. Drake recently received a threat that was posted online. In an interview with 18 news reporter Nicolas Dubina, Mr. Schlather said Dustin Drake has children, and that he will now focus on making sure his family is safe as they rebuild their lives.
All 12 jurors declined to comment as they left the courtroom.