A Baltimore grand jury indicted serial drunk-driver Thomas L. Meighan Jr. Tuesday for automobile manslaughter in the fatal hit-and-run last month of a promising Johns Hopkins University student.
The 10-count indictment represents a significant shift in the case against Meighan, who now faces a maximum of more than 35 years in prison if convicted on all charges, according to the Baltimore state's attorney's office.
He had earlier been charged with less serious driving offenses - carrying a possible six-year combined sentence - in connection with the death of Miriam Frankl, an Illinois native who was struck and killed while crossing St. Paul Street outside the university on Oct. 16.
Witnesses said Meighan, who lived with a girlfriend in Elkridge, was driving a white Ford F-250 truck dangerously throughout Baltimore that day, and at least one person called 911 to report the erratic driving. But no one immediately put Meighan behind the wheel when Frankl was hit, preventing prosecutors from seeking graver charges.
It's unclear whether new witnesses have since surfaced or if the new charges were built on other evidence. Baltimore police officials declined to comment. And Joseph Sviatko, spokesman for the city's state's attorney's office, would only say that the indictment was "based on a completed investigation."
Meighan's public defender, Todd Oppenheim, did not return a call requesting comment. His client, who turned himself in for questioning last month before he was arrested, told police he wasn't driving that day.
In a statement e-mailed to The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday, Frankl's family thanked city police and prosecutors for their work "investigating the tragic circumstances of Miriam's death" and for bringing the new charges.
"Determining Mr. Meighan's guilt or innocence now rests with a judge or jury," the statement reads. "While these new charges will not bring Miriam back, we are relieved that Mr. Meighan has been charged with these more serious offenses."
The new charges supersede the old, and upon conviction, have the potential to prevent Meighan from driving for a considerable amount of time.
That punishment has eluded Meighan, 39, despite at least nine drunk-driving convictions beginning in 1994, and seeing his license repeatedly suspended or revoked.
It was last suspended in September, according to Motor Vehicle records, while Meighan was out on $100,000 bail for unrelated hit-and-run charges from a July incident. His bail has since been revoked in that case, and none was granted for the October fatal hit-and-run.
In total, Meighan has been sentenced to at least 10 years in jail through the years, though half that time was suspended. He has blamed addictions to heroin and alcohol for his troubles in numerous letters to judges requesting leniency. He was allowed to finish serving one sentence at a halfway house, but was later convicted of escaping from it and sent back to prison.
His record includes convictions for marijuana possession, battery, disorderly conduct and theft. Last year, his wife filed a domestic violence claim against him, saying that when Meighan was drunk he threatened to kill her.
"Alcohol has all but destroyed my life," he wrote in an undated letter to one judge.
Meighan is not charged with any alcohol offenses in Frankl's death.
In addition to the manslaughter charge, the jury indicted him for driving on a suspended license and driving without an ignition interlock device, as well as charges related to leaving Frankl's accident scene and another crash earlier that day, when he's alleged to have hit an SUV. Three of the charges carry maximum 10-year penalties.
Frankl's death shocked and saddened the Hopkins community, which honored her 20-year life during a memorial held earlier this month and attended by more than 400 people. Friends and family described the likable neuroscience student as remarkable and charismatic, the sort of woman, researcher and scientist who could one day have lit the world on fire.
"This death has affected everyone at Johns Hopkins, whether or not we knew Miriam," said university spokesman Dennis O'Shea. "We're very grateful to the Police Department and the state's attorneys for the really dedicated job that they've put into this investigation."