Crash killed 1, but devastated 2 families


An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about a vehicular manslaughter case may have left the impression that defense attorney Jack B. Rubin paid for a pre-sentence investigation of his client, Martha Jean Ladenson. In fact, Rubin requested the investigation, but it was paid for by the state, as is typical in court cases.


Martha Jean Ladenson was on her way to her Eastern Shore vacation house, an impulse decision after dinner alone and two glasses of wine at her Tuscany-Canterbury condominium. Kim Carter McDonald was on her way home from a day trip to Washington to visit her only daughter, a student at Howard University.

Ladenson, 58 and the wife of a prominent local doctor, turned her sport utility vehicle onto Charles Street, ignoring orange cones blocking the way, and sped south against one-way traffic. The speedometer ticked past 60 mph as she ran a red light at West 28th Street.


McDonald, 42, in her compact car, was heading east on 28th, blocks from her Ednor Gardens home, where she had grown up and raised her daughter.

They crashed just before 6 p.m. on a Thursday in February 2005 at 28th and Charles, ricocheting off five other cars and a city bus.

McDonald died, and, last week, Ladenson went to prison with a two-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter.

The crash devastated two Baltimore families from different social classes - thrusting volatile issues such as wealth and privilege and mental health into a public courtroom.

Ladenson's sentence, her attorney Jack B. Rubin said yesterday, "had everything to do with the status of both families."

Martha Ladenson, born in Missouri, is the daughter of a doctor, the wife of a doctor and the mother of a doctor - a family tree Rubin pointed out at the sentencing hearing.

Her husband, Dr. Paul Ladenson, is director of endocrinology and metabolism for the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He and Kelly Ripken, wife of the former Orioles shortstop, co-founded an educational and referral foundation about Grave's disease, a thyroid condition.

Before she retired more than a decade ago, Martha Ladenson taught blind and dyslexic children. She accompanied her husband on business trips to Third World countries. The two have a grown son and daughter. They are grandparents.


McDonald's relatives, who are pursuing a civil lawsuit, said they believe that Ladenson has seemed cold and uncaring - even elitist - about the death she caused, invoking a stereotypical "above the law" attitude.

At the scene of the crash, according to court testimony, Ladenson did not try to help McDonald or a man in another car who fell unconscious. She did not call 911.

When police arrived, she became combative and refused to take a breath test. About 90 minutes later, when hospital workers drew her blood and tested it anyway, her blood-alcohol level was .08, just above the legal limit.

In the days after the crash, Ladenson told psychiatrists, according to her medical reports in her public court file, that she drove through barricades on Charles Street, because she thought "the signs and orange cones did not apply to her since she was a superior driver."

The psychiatrists said they believe that her comment showed she was delusional at the time of the crash and attributed her mental status to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She is now on medication, according to the medical reports.

McDonald's relatives said the numerous court delays over the past year and a half are evidence of Ladenson's unwillingness to take responsibility for her actions. Ladenson was indicted about three months after the crash. She pleaded not guilty and then pursued a finding of not criminally responsible. This August, she pleaded guilty.


"She tried to use her status and money to create her own justice system," said Andrea Carter Cooper, 41, McDonald's younger sister. "She has been arrogant through this whole process."

A pre-sentence investigator, hired at the request of Ladenson's attorney, noted a similar attitude in a sentencing report to the judge.

"Since the crime, Mrs. Ladenson has suffered no meaningful consequences for her responsibility in the victim's death. ..." the report says.

"In spite of her apparently genuine expressions of remorse, she has continued her life as before, enjoying foreign travel, the fruits of a substantial family income and a weekend home in which to relax."

Rubin excoriated the investigator at the sentencing hearing, comparing the report to "a lead-in to an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

The pre-sentence report noted Ladenson's "frequent travel to exotic foreign destinations," her "spacious, luxurious and well-appointed living space" and the couple's $500,000 vacation house, where she'd been heading the evening of the crash.


The judge reminded Rubin at the sentencing hearing that "obviously this is information that your client gave to the investigator" and refused to throw out the report.

At that hours-long sentencing hearing, held Oct. 17, the pain of both families was evident.

Ladenson's relatives, buttressed by warnings from psychiatrists the defense had hired, begged Circuit Judge Althea M. Handy to keep her out of prison.

The psychiatrists testified that putting Ladenson in prison could cause her mental health to collapse.

In court, Dr. Ladenson called his wife of 36 years "a fragile person" and said the family was "ready to move ahead to ensure her mental health and the safety of others."

When it came time for her own speech, Ladenson was brief, saying she had been "very sick" but was responsible for the crash. "I apologize from the bottom of my heart," she said. "The burden of Mrs. McDonald's death will be with me forever."


To McDonald's mother, Paulette Carter Tate, 62, Ladenson's words sounded insincere. "I think she just did whatever she could to try to stay out of jail," Tate said.

At the sentencing hearing and in interviews yesterday, McDonald's relatives told stories of a giving woman.

Daughter Keyia Jackson, 22, told Judge Handy about her last visit with her mother, just hours before the crash. "She was like sunshine that day," Jackson said. "My hero, my best friend, my heart."

McDonald had raised Jackson mostly on her own, working two jobs to earn enough money to send Jackson to St. Paul's School, to Howard University and on trips abroad.

In 1999, McDonald gave one of her kidneys to her younger sister, Tina Carter Hughes, who - like her twin sister, Andrea Cooper - has lupus.

And McDonald had just found love. In August 2004 she married Howald McDonald in ceremony in the mountains of Western Maryland. He told the judge about his brief but beautiful marriage, saying he used to rush home every evening, often with flowers in hand.


After listening to the relatives of both families, Judge Handy said it was the most difficult sentencing hearing she'd ever presided over.

But in the end, Handy said, no matter how exemplary Ladenson's life had been before Feb. 3, 2005, "the only appropriate sentence in this crime calls for incarceration."

About 17 Baltimore crashes each year are referred as vehicular manslaughter cases, prosecutors said. Of those, only about half a dozen are prosecuted on that charge because of rigorous gross negligence standards attached to it.

The vehicular manslaughter charge carries a maximum possible penalty of 10 years. Ladenson's cap, because of her guilty plea, was four years.

Hughes, who said she watched a man receive a five-year sentence for assault, said "there's injustice" in the shorter sentences that usually accompany auto deaths.

Rubin believed that his client, "who'd never had so much as a parking ticket," should not have gone to prison at all. He has filed a motion requesting that the sentence be amended.


"These are two lovely families," Rubin said. "There are no winners."