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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.

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