Driver gets 13 years in prison in fatal hit-and-run of Hopkins student, 20

Serial drunken driver Thomas Lee Meighan Jr. was sentenced Wednesday to 13 years in prison for the fatal hit-and-run in 2009 of a Johns Hopkins University student described in court by friends and family as a promising young scientist who might have changed the world.

Meighan, 40, was given an additional nine-year-suspended sentence in connection with a similar hit-and-run that occurred several months previously, in July 2009. Five people were injured in Northwest Baltimore after he drunkenly slammed into their compact car before fleeing on foot. If he violates probation after his release from prison, he could be forced to serve the suspended term.

The combined sentence, which came after a guilty plea, is the first significant amount of prison time Meighan has received despite nine prior drinking-and-driving convictions going back to 1994. But it, too, was a compromise.

If he had gone to trial, Meighan would have faced a maximum of 35 years in prison for just the charges associated with the death of 20-year-old Hopkins student Miriam Frankl. But prosecutors chose to offer a 16-year combined sentence in exchange for a guilty plea Tuesday to certain counts, including automobile manslaughter, according to Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein.

The term was reduced to 13 years by the judge, Bernstein said, adding that he "would not characterize it as a plea deal."

"You have caused immense harm, and you have to pay the price," Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy Doory said before sentencing Meighan. He added that the term was a "legitimate" penalty that could lead to a "turning point" in Meighan's life.

Meighan has been given many second chances through the years, as he's battled his drug and alcohol addictions and continually lost. His license has been repeatedly revoked and returned, and large portions of his prison sentences have been suspended.

He was allowed to finish one prison term at a halfway house, from which he escaped. And he was out on bail in the July incident when he killed Frankl.

"The state of Maryland and the criminal justice system failed to keep the public safe from Mr. Meighan," Miriam's father, Brian Frankl, told the court before sentencing. "This failure resulted in the death of my daughter."

Meighan had nothing to say to the crowded courtroom, filled with victims from the July incident and Miriam's friends and family. They rose one by one to tearfully share their pain while he stared at the floor, hands cuffed behind him.

"The tragedy here … is the Miriam that will never be," said Julia Pilcer, one of Frankl's sorority sisters. "The future Dr. Miriam Frankl … there are so many things that she would have done."

Miriam Frankl was a sorority sister to dozens of Alphi Phi members, and a bright student on her way to becoming a microbiologist. A Nobel Prize was not out of her reach, family members said.

They talked of her beauty, her freckles, her confidence and the gaping hole her death has left in their lives. Her parents have visibly aged, friends said, and two younger brothers have been robbed of their childhood.

"When she was killed, a long, deep wound cut across us all, a wound that will never heal," said her grandfather, Dr. William Frankl, who also mourned the loss of the wife, the mother, the scientist Miriam could have been.

In a letter to the court, Miriam's mother, Rachel German, wrote of bottomless despair from which she'll never recover.

"She was beautiful, smart and a hard worker. She was going places until Mr. Meighan cut her life short," her father said.

During all of these statements, Meighan didn't move from his position staring at the floor. The girlfriend whose Elkridge home he lived in before the arrest sat two rows behind him, glancing between Meighan and the speakers. She wiped away tears when he was led into the courtroom.

Meighan's criminal record includes convictions for marijuana possession, battery, disorderly conduct, theft and the halfway house escape.

He was too drunk to sign the arrest paperwork the first time he was charged with drinking and driving, when he was 23, which proved to be a pattern in the years ahead. He urinated on himself before one arrest, and highjacked a snowplow in another.

"Alcohol has all but destroyed my life," Meighan wrote in an undated letter to one judge.

On July 31, 2009, Meighan was driving his white, Ford F-250 truck in Northwest Baltimore, when he hit a car carrying five passengers. He fled, but police tracked him down and arrested him with a blood-alcohol level of 0.09, above the legal limit of 0.08.

Four of the five young people struck in July 2009 appeared in court Wednesday, and several of them spoke, outlining recurring pain and lost opportunities from the crash.

Lynnora Christian said she spent her 20th birthday in the hospital because of Meighan. Another man wrote in a letter to the court that his injuries — broken ribs and a punctured lung — have kept him from a military career. And a third victim just wanted to know why Meighan didn't stop, why he didn't check to see if anyone was hurt.

At the time of that crash, Meighan was supposed to have an ignition interlock device installed in his car, according to a Motor Vehicle Administration order. But he didn't, and no one checked to see if he had.

"He was never required to show proof," said Assistant State's Attorney Tyler Mann. The device prevents a car from starting if the driver fails a breath alcohol test. Legislation requiring the devices for drunk drivers failed to pass the General Assembly last year, though lawmakers are again considering the issue and were briefed on the devices Wednesday.

Meighan was out on $100,000 bail in the July case when he hit Frankl on the rainy afternoon of Oct. 16, 2009.

Several witnesses told police that he took a terrifying trip through Baltimore that morning. The truck was spotted running red lights, tailgating other drivers and going the wrong way on a one-way street. At one point Meighan allegedly stopped the truck to urinate alongside it, then kept going.

Then, about 3:20 p.m., he turned onto the northbound lane of the 3500 block of St. Paul Street as Miriam Frankl tried to cross. Her body was thrown back into a parked car after the impact, according to an accident reconstruction report submitted by the defense.

He didn't stick around to see if Miriam had been hurt. She died 11 hours later, holding her aunt's hand.

Her family released a statement Wednesday evening, several hours after the hearing. It thanked prosecutors for their hard work and said that Meighan's guilty plea and 13-year sentence "does provide some measure of justice under these circumstances."

But it had harsh words for lawmakers and judges.

"It is clear to us from this case that significant reform is needed in the State of Maryland relative to crimes involving intoxicated and reckless drivers," the statement said.

"The Maryland legislature should seriously strengthen the laws related to drunk and reckless driving. In addition, judges must begin to give sentences that reflect the serious nature of these crimes and the harm they do to the community. Until that happens, tragedies such as this one involving an innocent life, are inevitable here in Maryland and Marylanders will continue to suffer."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

The sentences

Thomas Lee Meighan Jr. pleaded guilty to multiple counts in two cases Tuesday, receiving a 13-year prison sentence and an additional nine-year suspended term that he could be forced to serve if he violates probation upon release.

•Oct. 16, 2009, hit-and-run of Johns Hopkins student Miriam Frankl:

Vehicular manslaughter — 10 years

Hit and run resulting in death — 3 years, to run consecutively

•July 31, 2009, hit-and-run injuring five young people:

Driving under influence — 3 years suspended sentence

Driving without insurance —1 year suspended sentence

Source: Baltimore state's attorney's office

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