Maryland prosecutors called on the General Assembly yesterday to make it less likely that drivers who kill will get off with just a traffic ticket.
Flanked by family members of highway accident victims, five state's attorneys held a news conference in Annapolis to endorse legislation that would create the offense of "homicide by aggressive driving."
The bill would allow incarceration of up to three years in cases where an "aggressive" driver -- someone who breaks multiple traffic laws -- causes a fatality.
Prosecutors hope the new charge would help them avoid cases such as that of Raymond Charles Haney, who killed four children and an adult when his car jumped a curb in Woodlawn in 1995.
Haney was charged with five counts of vehicular manslaughter -- which could have sent him to prison for 50 years -- but was acquitted after a judge found insufficient evidence to show a reckless disregard for human life.
Convicted on the lesser charges of reckless driving and speeding, Haney was fined $2,500 and ordered to pay $2,500 in court costs.
Joseph I. Cassilly, president of the
Maryland State's Attorney's Association, said prosecutors need an intermediate charge that fills the gap between reckless driving and manslaughter.
Cassilly, Harford County state's attorney, said prosecutors have a hard time explaining to jurors the difference between gross negligence -- required for a vehicular manslaughter conviction -- and simple negligence.
"The jurors' eyes tend to glass over, and you realize that you're losing them," he said. Cassilly added that even when prosecutors do win a manslaughter verdict, appeals courts often throw out the conviction.
Cassilly estimated that statewide, 50 to 70 cases a year could be prosecuted under the new charge.
Douglas Gansler, Montgomery County state's attorney, said the bill was the prosecutors' association's top legislative priority for the 2000 legislative session.
Under the legislation, Gansler said, "If you drive aggressively and if you kill someone, you will be held accountable."
The bill defines an aggressive driving homicide as one that a driver commits in the course of breaking two or more traffic laws. For speeding offenses to count, the driver would have to be exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 mph.
Similar legislation has failed to make it out of committee in recent years, but Gansler said this year's bill was carefully drafted to allay legislators' concern that fatal accidents caused by simple negligence could lead to criminal charges.
The bill is sponsored by Democratic Del. Sharon M. Grosfeld and Republican Sen. Jean W. Roesser, both of Montgomery County.
The prosecutors were joined at the news conference by several family members of Marylanders killed by reckless drivers who escaped jail time.
Paul Balasic of Severna Park described how his 15-year-old daughter, Bethany Anne, was killed on Ritchie Highway by a speeding driver who was weaving from lane to lane before running a red light and striking the car in which the girl was riding.
Joseph Leigh Cornett, 18 at the time of the crash, was fined $1,500 on traffic charges after a judge found insufficient evidence to convict him of manslaughter, which carries a 10-year maximum sentence for each count.
"There's a gaping hole in Maryland law," Balasic said.
Hearings on the legislation are scheduled Thursday in the Senate and March 7 in the House of Delegates.