Thank you for the opportunity of permitting me to offer some post-trial comments on this terrible case.
First, I commend the law enforcement, fire and rescue personnel who responded to this crash, and worked to handle this horrible situation. For them, these accidents are all too common and traumatizing to work, yet they do so with amazing professionalism. Second, I thank the citizen witnesses who were willing to testify and assist in our efforts in court. Also, let me acknowledge the fine work of our Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Peters who did an excellent job in the both the trial of this case and in the post-trial management which led to a withdrawal of appeal.
In Virginia, 12 months in jail is the maximum sentence allowable by law for reckless driving, even when death results. In this case, the matter involved distracted driving as the driver was not paying attention. He was not intoxicated, or on drugs, or engaged in other criminal behavior. He was simply not giving his full attention to the road in a remarkably careless and indeed reckless manner – under the particular circumstances. This is the second maximum sentence for distracted driving in Fauquier County courts in 2017. The result of this particular case is the tragic death of two people. Given that fact, it can be less than satisfying to achieve a 12 month maximum jail sentence. No verdict can replace human life, and a 12 month sentence, even though it is the maximum that the law allows, can seem somewhat hollow. No one appreciates that fact more than the police and prosecutors who do this work for a living and seek the best sentences that they can achieve under the law that applies to the particular case.
Virginia does not have what some states call a “misdemeanor-manslaughter” law which elevates a misdemeanor to a felony when death results. So, the sentencing impact of the deaths is to elevate the sentence to the maximum end of the misdemeanor punishment scale, which is 12 months in jail. A misdemeanor-manslaughter law would allow for consideration of a prison sentence on the homicide spectrum of manslaughter (up to 10 years). I agree that Virginia should adopt such a law. It does not mean that every death arising out of a misdemeanor case would automatically involve a 10 year prison sentence. Rather, it simply means that a larger penalty scale would be available to a judge or jury in a given case.
All of that said, I am pleased with the work of my Senior Assistant Prosecuting Attorney and the maximum verdict of the trial judge. Under the law, they could do no more. In the end, the case represents another example of how dangerous our roads can be, and is yet another wake up call to motorists to exercise caution, obey the rules of the road (the law) and drive defensively.
Jim Fisher, Commonwealth’s Attorney, Fauquier County