Vanessa Raghubar’s York College senior pictures. Photo courtesy: Nadira Nandlall.
By Greis Torres
Janice Perry, the mother of the York student killed by a drunk cop in Queens last year, got up to read in front of Judge Gia L. Morris about her daughter, Vanessa Raghubar.
Perry started sobbing and then broke down in tears, unable to read a scrapbook she brought, one she received from Vanessa.
Judge Morris offered to read the book, but broke out in tears after reading a few lines.
On Nov. 21, during a very emotional hearing, Neville Smith, the ex-cop who killed Vanessa while drunk driving in April of 2017, offered a terse apology to the family and received his formal sentencing after nearly two years of court delays and postponements.
Vanessa’s family gathered at Queens Supreme Court and some gave powerful victim-impacts statements about Vanessa’s life and death, leading almost everyone in the courtroom to cry.
Smith, 33, the ex-patrolman from the 48th precinct in the Bronx, kept a straight face throughout the hearing despite all the emotion abundant in the courtroom.
“The memory of our last meeting will stay with me forever,” said Perry right before she broke out into tears.
She gave birth to and raised Vanessa in Guyana before Vanessa moved to the United States in 2006 with her father when she was 11-years old. She lived with her aunt, Esther Mongul and her uncle, Patrick Mongul, from then on until the day she died.
Esther said in her powerful statement that she never had biological children, but considered Vanessa as her own daughter because of the strong bond between them two.
“You destroyed my faith, my belief, and broke my heart. Everything I did was for my daughter,” said Esther to Smith. “Yes, somewhere along the line she became my daughter, my Vanessa. Now I go home to an emptiness, a house not a home anymore, that is what it feels like for my husband and I. Standing here in front of you today, I don’t know how you would be able to live with this guilt for the rest of your live, I pity you.”
Vanessa’s sister, Maria Raghubar, who was also a victim in the car crash, also got up and spoke about the aftermath of the crash.
“Even a year later, I was still having surgeries because I couldn’t use the bathroom and walk properly,” said Maria who attended York’s 2017 commencement exercises with her family on behalf of Vanessa in a wheelchair due to internal injuries and a hip fracture caused by the crash.
Justin Harricharran, Maria’s boyfriend and the third victim of the car crash also spoke in court about the accident, and how deeply and permanently affected his and the family’s lives.
“No amount of time will heal the wounds you have inflicted on all of us,” Harricharran said, as Smith stared off in the distance, not looking at him.
Vanessa’s cousin, Nadira Nandlall, spoke next, addressing Smith directly, trying unsuccessfully to elicit a reaction from him.
“You destroyed her dreams and aspirations,” said Nandlall, pointing her finger directly at Smith, who remained stone-faced. “ I forgive you, but you should ask God to forgive you.”
Anthony M. La Pinta, Smith’s lawyer, faced Vanessa’s family and said how deeply sorry he and his client both were.
“You’ll forever be in our thoughts and our prayers,” said La Pinta to the family.
Smith faced the family too, apologized with an inexpressive face and quickly turned away.
“I didn’t see a response from him,” said Nandlall. “His face was blank. Him turning around and looking at us and saying he is sorry… I thought it wasn’t enough of an apology for what he did.”
Smith cut a plea deal reducing his top charge from vehicular manslaughter to criminally negligent homicide before he even reported to jail in February of 2018. He was released in June of that year after serving just four months, all of it in a hospital ward on Riker’s Island.
At his sentencing hearing, Judge Morris adjusted his final disposition to the homicide charge and sentenced him to time served plus five years probation. He also had his license revoked for one year, and was ordered to complete 500 hours of community service and assessed a $1,000 fine.
Smith was driving drunk in the Van Wyck Expressway when he rear-ended a Honda driven by Vanessa, with her sister and boyfriend as passengers. The impact of the crash sent Vanessa’s car straight to a light pole and a tree.
Officers at the scene of the accident said that Smith had bloodshot eyes and signs that he was inebriated. He told officers that he was returning home from a dinner function for an old co-worker, a claim later denied by La Pinta who said Smith had not been drinking that day, the New York Times reported.
Smith refused to take a breathalyzer test or blood tests, according to court records.
Vanessa, Maria and her boyfriend, Harricharran, were rushed to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center where Vanessa died of brain injuries at 1 a.m. the next day.
Smith pled guilty to vehicular manslaughter and negligent homicide charges on Jan. 31 and was allowed to resign from the NYPD.
Before the emotionally charged sentencing, Smith and his attorney were overheard discussing the optics of how the hearing was scripted to end. He would have to be led out of the courtroom in handcuffs into a holding area, but he was permitted to keep his cellphone, as he was going to be instantly uncuffed and released through a back door.
Earlier during the proceedings, another defendant appeared before Judge Morris and received a five month jail sentence for aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, a crime which involved no personal injuries.
After the hearing the family huddled outside the courtroom, crying and hugging each other.
“It’s never fair when you take a life,” said Nandlall. “It’s something that our family will have to live with for the rest of our lives and it hurts.”