Son's death spurs action by parents; Legislation sought after fatal crash

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Every time Lisa and Tim Napoli read the police report, they get angrier.

Within its 29 neatly typed pages is the story of how their 19-year-old son, Michael, was killed April 24 when his car was struck head-on in Harford County by a car driven by a 16-year-old.

Out of their grief -- and their frustration that no criminal charges have been filed -- they have begun a campaign to ensure that someone is held accountable for their son's death.

In doing so, they have trained a spotlight on a problem familiar to prosecutors statewide: How to balance a grieving family's desire for justice against state laws that make it difficult to bring charges, particularly when drugs and alcohol aren't involved.

"We had always assumed that if you are involved in a fatal or a serious crash, your license would be suspended until an investigation is completed," Lisa Napoli said. "We learned in the most difficult way possible that this is not the case."

The teen-age driver -- whom The Sun has declined to identify in this article because he is a minor who has not been criminally charged -- was issued six tickets in the wake of the crash, ranging from failure to control speed to reckless driving.

But the state police investigation found that the teen-ager was not driving in a "grossly negligent manner" -- the standard necessary to bring charges of manslaughter by automobile.

And because Maryland is one of seven states that does not allow jail time for reckless driving, the maximum penalties in this case are fines -- ranging up to $110 per ticket -- and points charged to the teen-ager's driving record.

A hearing on the accident is scheduled Nov. 19. But even if the teen-ager is convicted, the points would not be enough to suspend his license.

Pushing for a law

The teen-ager has been able to drive since the accident, and Michael Napoli's parents say that has added to their pain. They insist that the 1988 Oldsmobile that careened into their son's 1996 Honda was speeding recklessly.

And in a letter-writing campaign to more than 500 friends and family members, they seek support in urging state and local officials to push for a negligent-homicide law that would create an intermediate criminal charge, somewhere between reckless driving and vehicular manslaughter.

Sue A. Schenning, a Baltimore County deputy state's attorney, said complaints similar to those by Napoli's parents have led the Maryland State's Attorney's Association to draft legislation on aggressive driving that results in a death.

Under the measure, a person found guilty of two or more driving offenses -- such as speeding or running a red light in an accident that results in a death -- would face up to three years' imprisonment and a $5,000 fine.

"We have cases all the time where we have fatals, and you are left in the terrible position of telling the family that there's nothing you can do," Schenning said. "The bar to prosecute under the manslaughter-by-automobile statute is very high."

A difficult case

The result can be frustrating for families and prosecutors. Because manslaughter is such a serious charge, prosecutors say, convictions can be difficult to win in accidents that don't involve drunken driving or drugs.

Prosecutors point to a 1995 accident in which a family of five died after being struck by a car driven by Raymond Charles Haney in Woodlawn. Haney was acquitted by a judge of vehicular manslaughter charges and fined $2,500 for speeding and reckless driving.

In a recent Carroll County case, a jury deadlocked on manslaughter and assault charges for two men accused of causing the death of a teacher while drag-racing. A second jury convicted the pair of manslaughter by automobile and second-degree assault.

No 'gross negligence'

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, whose office has been flooded with letters and e-mail from supporters of Michael Napoli's parents, said he sympathizes with the family but cannot prosecute the case.

Cassilly said he reviewed the state police report as well as dozens of court decisions that interpreted the "gross negligence" needed to bring criminal charges. The Napoli case did not meet the requirement, he said.

"Every state's attorney has gone through what I am going through, where we are the ones left to meet with the families who are angry and grieving," Cassilly said. "I think that prosecutors, trial juries and judges really don't have a good standard that applies for these types of cases."

Cassilly made his decision after reviewing the crash investigator's report. Michael Napoli's parents see gray areas in that report.

The accident

It was a bright and sunny afternoon on April 24 when Michael Napoli was at the wheel headed north with two friends on Route 24 in Bel Air, on his way to see his father's new townhouse.

The 6-foot, 220-pound tennis player was traveling from a flea market in Dundalk when a southbound Oldsmobile crossed the 44-foot median strip and veered into his lane, striking his Honda Civic.

The cars were demolished and Michael Napoli was killed. His passengers were injured. The other driver, who was alone, suffered minor injuries.

A life lesson

Lisa and Tim Napoli point to witness statements in the police report stating that the other car was traveling much faster than the 53 mph estimated by investigators in the 55-mph zone. They also note what they regard as other inconsistencies in the investigation.

They insist that their crusade is not based on a desire to see the other driver jailed.

"We're not looking to ruin his life, and we're not looking for anything civilly," Lisa Napoli said. "We just want a life lesson for this young man, even if it is just some type of community service."

State police investigators defend their methods and say their report is based on facts, not emotions. Tfc. Kenneth Oland, collision reconstruction coordinator for the Maryland State Police, said it is difficult for witnesses to estimate speed accurately, especially after the shock of a catastrophic crash.

Such estimates are difficult to calculate for investigators using complex formulas, he said.

"In my 11 years of doing this, when I have come up with speed calculations, they have never been fast enough for the family," Oland said.

Michael Napoli's parents have vowed to keep fighting. It is their way, they said, of paying tribute to their son.

"We are not going to give up," Tim Napoli said. "Michael would have wanted us to fight for this."

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