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Paraplegic driver guilty in first-degree murder of FF Michelle Smith. Definition of firefighter important in case of slain Delaware City Fire Company member.

DE Delaware City Michelle Smith

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From Sean O’Sullivan at

Paraplegic Joseph Taye was found guilty today of first-degree murder for running into Michelle Smith of the Delaware City Fire Company on Dec. 20 2008 as Smith tended to an injured man lying on the side of U.S. 13.

By the end of a 10-day bench trial in October, there was no doubt that 29-year-old Taye had been driving the car — using a stick to work the pedals — that struck and killed Smith, 29, and defense attorney Joe Hurley had largely conceded that point.DE New Castle Taye

The question that did remain for Superior Court Judge Jerome O. Herlihy to decide was Smith’s status at the time of the accident. If she was a firefighter, then Taye was guilty of first-degree murder, which carries an automatic sentence of life in prison. If she was best defined as an ambulance driver or emergency medical responder – or even a firefighter who was not “in the line of duty” when she was struck – then Taye was guilty of the lesser offense of manslaughter, which carries a minimum sentence of two years in prison and a maximum of 25 years.

In a brief proceeding this morning, Herlihy ruled that even though Smith was not riding on the fire truck that responded to the scene, and was not dressed as a firefighter that night, she qualified as a firefighter under the law because she had completed her training and had been designated a firefighter by the Delaware City Fire Company. In addition, Herlihy said the duties, and commonly accepted definition, of a firefighter go far beyond just fighting fires and include such things as responding to motor vehicle accidents.

The evidence in the case concluded five weeks ago and all sides had been waiting for the judge to render a verdict.

Several days ago it was announced that Herlihy would be announcing his verdict this morning, so the courtroom was packed to overflowing. Dozens of emergency services personnel from around the county, attending in dress uniform, had to wait in the hall because they could not fit into the courtroom.

DE Delaware City crash sceneWhen Herlihy read his verdict on the lead charge, a small cheer came from Smith’s family. Taye, who is in a wheelchair and was in court dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, had been staring at the floor during the proceeding, briefly looked up an over at the Smith family, then returned to staring at the floor.

Herlihy then announced he also found Taye guilty of manslaughter, first-degree assault, reckless endangering, leaving the scene of an accident and driving with a suspended license.

Hurley said his client would be appealing the ruling.

As Taye exited, a family member shouted, “Love you Joe,” and “Ain’t nothing but another fight.”

Outside the courtroom, prosecutors Sean Lugg and John Down said they were pleased with the result.

Dave Carpenter Jr., a spokesman for the Delaware City Fire Company, praised the ruling as a landmark. “It sets a precedent for defining a fire fighter,” he said, and can now be used to help protect others.


Comments - Add Yours

  • Chief Reason

    I’ll save my cheers until the appeal has been denied.
    My question wasn’t whether Smith was a firefighter at the time of her death.
    My question was: why is this guy still driving? You could think that having those road side safety checks might catch someone like this.
    It’s interesting to note that Taye’s family showed no remorse for his actions (just another fight, joe).

  • WFDT

    Why is killing a firefighter a more grievous offense than a “mere” EMT or paramedic? Just curious.

  • Anonymous

    i agree with WFDT, how is a FF life more valuable than ems worker?

  • NursePilot

    I agree with WFDT: The same rules should apply for EMT’s and Paramedics. We need to petition our elected officials to get the laws changed to make this right for all EMS personnel – AND Reminding them that election day will be coming up soon enough…


    Actually, the same rules should apply to people in general. Why, as firefighters and emts, are our lives more valuable than a small child on a bicycle or a random pedestrian? This guy should get the same sentence regardless of who he killed.

  • Randy Fugate

    Hopefully he will run ary of his scumbag criminal kindred in prison, while awaiting appeal. I’m thinking a slow painful death that ends with this bastard drowning on his own vomit. As for his family, its clear the caliber of individuals they are as evidenced by their courtroom behavior and the looser they produced!

  • Anonymous

    i would like to know that if I am killed in the line of duty as a paramedic tending to a patient and I got killed (by gun or vehicle) that the perp would spend life in prison or get the chair.

  • trauma chick

    i agree too i am a medic is my life less valuable because i am not a ff????

  • Tim Strickland

    First, my sincere condolences to Fire Fighter Smith’s family.

    I agree with WFDT. My son is both a Fire Fighter and an EMT. His services and his life are no less valuable when he is performing in either capacity. And I’d have to say that the risks to his health/life have been about equal as well. First Responders, whether career or volunteer, should be viewed equally.

  • Mack C-85

    The law at the time was specific to fire fighters.


    “On June 31, Delaware Gov. Jack A. Markell signed into law the Michelle Smith’s Law which adds paramedics, EMTs, fire marshals and fire police officers to a list of first responders whose death can result in a first-degree murder charge.”

  • New Girl in Town

    My prayers and condolences go to the family of the firefighter. May they somehow find peace in this time of tragedy and loss. I’m a brand new EMT with barely a month of per diem shifts under my belt, but I’d just like to say that I agree that all life is precious and fragile. Too bad there are some folks out there like the “just another fight” person. They just don’t get it.

  • Texas Gordo

    Criminal Taye’s family sounds like a real set of winners. And

    Now that he has been found guilty, and we agree that he is incapable of reform, let us lock him away where he can do no more damage to the fabric of our society. Let us never utter his name again, nor let his image be a blight on our eyes.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, I am missing something:

    “Now that he has been found guilty, and we agree that he is incapable of reform, let us lock him away where he can do no more damage to the fabric of our society. Let us never utter his name again, nor let his image be a blight on our eyes.”

    This guy was trying to survive and get from one point to another, he is a paraplegic, who is now crucified for this. Where is the criminal willfulness? I mean, come on, 1st degree I thought you had to have intent. You mean to tell me he TRIED TO RUN HER OVER! THis is insane. Maybe I am missing something about his past….

    My condolences to the family. Roadways are deadly. But I ask what kind of retribution is this? Was he a rapist or homicidal maniac. You guys are “cheering” for this guy to be hung or incarcerated for life? SO now this sets an example for all paraplegics who want to try stick driving? Manlaughter, yes, but 1 degree????

  • Texas Gordo

    Anonymous 12:03,

    I think you are a “Ghoul”. One of those individuals who posts to websites for the intent purpose of causing mayhem. I’ve always wondered about your subculture of geek who somehow derives pleasure from reading the response to the incendiary style posts you make, and I wonder did mommy not hug you enough, were you picked on in middle school, are you unable to find employment that provides you with satisfaction in the life that you live? I wonder what “Ghouls” did before the internet existed. It must have been a lonely existence, but I’ll rise to the bait on the off chance that your post was even remotely serious.

    I’m a liberal, and believe in the power of reform, but this was a career criminal who fled the scene of a fatal injury that were the result of his actions. I have no mercy for him (sorry, I’m Old Testament in my retribution).

    He was driving a stolen vehicle without a license. He was speeding through an accident scene and lost control of his vehicle. He struck and killed a woman who was rendering medical aid to an injured party. The stolen car he was driving spun out, and a second vehicle pulled alongside of his, at which time an unidentified individual went over to Murderer Taye’s vehicle and carried him to the second vehicle, and which point both fled the scene.

    He did not turn himself or his accomplice into the authorities, they had to find him. There are no reports of his remorse, or demonstration of attempts from this individual to get his life in order after his previous 20 other convictions.

    The best thing for society is for this recidivist criminal to be locked away. He can no longer contribute to the gene pool,and his incarceration serves as a daily reminder to his family that although they may be without moral standards, they will be held accountable to society’s standard.

    If you don’t like minimum sentencing guidelines complain to your legislator.

  • Confused NREMT

    I understand that EMS is a young profession compared to law enforcement and fire fighters, but I think as time passes and these professions evolve, it is time to embrace that we are all in public service for the same goal. To protect the members of our community. Whether it’s a house fire, domestic assault, or just the “plain old” respiratory distress. We often work together in multi-agency operations. A motor vehicle accident is the perfect example. Law enforcement directs traffic and tries to figure out what the cause is, the fire department stabilizes the vehicle(s), gains access to the patient, and helps with extrication and transfer to the ambulance, and EMS tries to keep the patient alive until they get what they really need… bright lights and cold steel. Now not all MVAs are this bad. But no matter what, there are at least two of these agencies there at the scene who must work together. Since this is the case, how can someone say that one profession is worth more than the others? I understand we are going by old laws but my point is that they should be changed.

    In a hypothetical situation, what if a citizen chooses to stop and help at an MVA under the Good Samaritan laws and mentality. What if they were struck and killed by the same driver in the above story? How would the court respond? What would be the penalty then? Would it come down to who had the better/more expensive lawyer?

  • Lauren
    Look this guy up in the MD judificiary search… what a loser.

  • Lauren

    Judiciary even… fingers faster than brain! This is just for Maryland… I’m sure he has more charges in his home state of DE and probably the surrounding states.

  • K_FF/EMT

    Just curious…what was the outcome of her being deemed a “Fire Fighter” for the purpose of LODD funding from the state? If memory serves me correctly, the “state” was saying she wasn’t a FF and therefore did not qualify for the LODD benefit to her heirs. (Which personally didn’t sit well with me). EVERYONE in that roadway assisting with those scenes are deserving of the same benefits / protection.

  • nikki

    i am neither a ff or emt, but i would like to think that if i were in this situation and simply stopped to help that the loss of my life would be of the
    same value. A life is a life. forget about status. as i type this people are morning the life of the ‘firefighter’ just as they are of the ‘paraplegic’. there was more than one life lost that day.

  • Johnie

    To everyone who is noticing the difference in Delaware’s law regarding the difference between firefighters and EMS/EMT should know that the law was changed in 2009 pursuant to the “Michelle Smith Act” that treats EMS/EMT workers exactly the same for purposes of 1st degree murder. The law was not on the books when Ms. Smith was killed. A defendant cannot be criminally prosecuted for a law that is enacted after the crime took place. That’s why the defination of firefighter was so important. If the same thing happened today in Delaware there would be no issue.