Cyclists from around the state of Maryland were appalled last week when an Anne Arundel County grand jury failed to indict Whitney DeCesaris for negligent homicide in the death of Patricia Cunningham, an Annapolis High School coach who was killed on Riva Road by Ms. DeCesaris's bad driving. The grand jury did indict her for a few traffic offenses such as negligent driving.
Shortly after the crash, I wrote in the Washcycle (and in the Edgewater Patch) that the available information strongly suggested that this was negligent homicide (a misdemeanor with a maximum 3-year prison sentence), and urged people to email the State's Attorney. About 600 people did so, and it's clear that her office seriously investigated the possible homicide. I can not say whether the case was well-presented to the grand jury or not. If not, then the prosecutors can try again to get an indictment. The 5th Amendment's prohibition of double jeopardy does not apply to grand jury investigations. If she pleads guilty to negligent driving or another offense arising from the crash, however, the 5th Amendment will bar additional prosecution. (Ashley Halsey's suggestion in the Washington Post that this case had to go to the grand jury because felony manslaughter was a possibility is dubious because there was no evidence of reckless conduct, just criminal negligence.)
A criminal conviction of Ms. DeCesaris, however, is not the only means of achieving at least a modicum of justice. Of course no one can bring Ms. Cunningham back, so any talk about justice is relative. The goals of criminal punishment include retribution, prevention of additional harm, and rehabilitation. Here are a few other options.
Drivers License Suspension.
Over the years, many cyclists have told me that putting drivers in jail for a few months is probably less important than making sure they never kill again. It's bad enough that one life was taken by the crash, there is no need to ruin a second life. But taking away a driver's license does not ruin anyone's life. During the suspension period it protects society from a repeat offense, and it is also an effective rehabilitation. By living without the ability to drive, the offender may come to better understand the hazard she was creating--especially if she adopts the bicycle as her new form of transportation.
According to Transportation Article §16-206(5)(i), the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) "may suspend the license of a person who is convicted of a moving violation that contributed to an accident resulting in the death of another person" for up to 6 months. That period is probably too short, and had she been convicted and sentenced to probation, her license could have been suspended for the maximum sentence of three years. But even a six-month suspension can teach someone alot.
Hopefully, the police have already explained this possibility to the Cunningham family, because §12-206.1 requires that "during the investigation of a moving violation, a law enforcement officer shall inform a victim's representative of the right to file a victim's representation notification form with the Administration to request to be notified of a hearing" to revoke the drive'rs license. Provided that the family fills out a form requesting to be notified, then if the MVA holds a hearing on revoking the driver's license, the family will be notified an given an opportunity to speak at that hearing.
Of course, the Motor Vehicle Administration may need some encouragement to act.
Fix the Roads
Anne Arundel's rural residential roads can accommodate bicycles with automobiles if drivers learn how to share the road with bicycles. The jury's failure to indict, however, might suggest that the average person in Anne Arundel does not view killing a cyclist while passing unsafely as substantially worse driving than the norm. If Anne Arundel County accepts that assessment, then the County will be saying--in effect--that the death of a cyclist is merely garden-variety negligence, unfortunate but foreseeable.
That would put the onus on the county Department of Public Works (DPW) to immediately remedy these hazards. Perhaps DPW had been assuming that people do not pass cyclists on blind hills and curves. With a grand jury determination that passing a cyclist on such a hill is not outrageous conduct, the onus may shift onto DPW to redesign roads where possible--and to make at least some fixes immediately.
Traffic engineers know how to slow traffic. They usually don't on rural roads, but the increasing density of cycllists on some roads may have shifted the balance on many roads that are too narrow to give cyclists a paved shoulder. Rumble strips to calm traffis; signs to warn drivers that cyclists are using the center of the lane; signs to warn cyclists about the dangerous drivers. In some cases, removing double yellow lines can help, since drivers proceed more slowly on roads lacking a painted center line.
James Schroll, the chief traffic engineer for Anne Arundel County, told me last year: "We already have 70,000 signs on county roads. Signs that merely tell people the law should not be needed." At the time, I was asking him about whether the County would be posting signs that say "Bicycles May Use Full Lane," which have become ubiquitous on state highways in Prince George's County. "There are better ways to inform residents that the law allows cyclists to take the lane."
Whatever he had in mind, maybe it's time for the County to do it.
Do Some Soul Searching
We can probably assume that Ms. DeCesaris feels terrible about what she did, and helpless to make things right. Her insurance company could have provided full compensation for a broken bike and even some types of injuries, but not the loss of life. While Ms. DeCesaris can never give back to the Cunninghams what she took, she will have many chances to give back to the rest of society what she took. Through career choices and volunteer work she could save more lives than she has taken, if she chooses to do so. That's a life path most fatality-causing drivers don't take--but the ones who do are probably happier.
The rest of us are not totally innocent in this matter. At least once in life, most of us have taken unjustified risks while behind a wheel or elsewhere. And how often do we have momentary lapses of concentration only to notice a pedestrian--often with back to the roadway--at the last moment? Why didn't we see him sooner?
The grand jury probably realized that but for the Grace of God some of them could have faced the same charges as Ms. DeCesaris. If the prosecutors did their job, the jury understood that this does not mean that she should not be indicted. Let's hope that the failure to indict in this case does not unconsciously lead other drivers to assume that they won't face more serious consequences when an accident like this happens again.
(This article also appeared yesterday in the Edgewater Patch. Jim Titus is a member of the Board of Directors of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association from Prince George's County. The opinions expressed here are solely his own.)