Wednesday, December 12, 2012
The father of an ECU student killed in a high-speed, rear-end crash criticized an “asinine” and “ridiculous” charge of misdemeanor death by vehicle and demanded time for private investigation into the case.
Douglas Smith emailed The Daily Reflector a copy of a letter sent on Monday to the City Attorney’s Office, alleging his son, Ashley “Ash” Stephen Smith, was murdered on Oct. 23 by a man he said likely was under the influence of narcotics when the vehicles crashed.
His son, a 32-year-old East Carolina University student, was stopped in his 2000 Honda hybrid car at a red light on N.C. 11 North at U.S. 264 East near Greenpark Drive when he was rear-ended by a 1997 Jeep at 1:12 p.m., according to a crash report. According to Greenville police, the airbags in Smith’s car did not deploy.
In the letter, Douglas Smith said the investigation conducted by Greenville police was insufficient, specifically because no alcohol or drug test was administered to 21-year-old James Caleb Cannon, the driver of the Jeep. He demanded court proceedings against Cannon be slowed so his family can seek justice by way of private investigation.
Court records show Cannon was charged on Nov. 14 with misdemeanor death by vehicle, a crime Smith said does not reflect what he described as a senseless, cruel and brutal killing.
“Apparently you can run over someone and not have anything happen to you,” Smith said during a phone interview. “I don’t know the law, but it’s just a waste. They’re just not doing the right thing. I’m torn to shreds.”
The family has hired an investigator who specializes in wreck reconstruction, Smith said.
Cannon’s citation shows he was charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle because he failed to reduce speed to avoid colliding with another vehicle, and the violation was the proximate cause of death.
Assistant District Attorney Tonya Montanye, the prosecutor assigned to the case, said a conviction of misdemeanor death by vehicle carries a sentence of up to 120 days in prison.
Montanye said Smith and his daughter, Aleania, met with her at the District Attorney’s Office, where she explained many offenders found guilty of the misdemeanor receive lesser sentences because they do not have criminal records.
The prosecutor said she is aware of the family’s concerns, but it is difficult for her to comment about whether the charge is appropriate because she has not received the report from the Greenville Police Department.
“I think it certainly is a valid opinion coming from a parent that has lost their child,” she said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, he is in the same position that I often see with many victims’ families of motor vehicle fatalities that the punishment is not as severe as it should be.”
Records show that Cannon is scheduled to appear in District Court on Jan. 3.
“I demand that the defendant not be allowed to walk into the courtroom and plead guilty to an asininely, ridiculously under-charging traffic ticket and be allowed to walk away with a slap on the wrist as if the brutal slaughter of my innocent son, Ashley Smith, never happened,” Smith said in the letter.
Cannon, who was traveling northbound at 55 mph in a 55 mph zone, told police the traffic light was green when he looked down to change the station on his radio, the crash report said. When he returned his focus to the road, the light was red, and traffic had stopped in front of him, he said. Cannon said he applied his brakes but still struck the Honda driven by Ash Smith.
Douglas Smith said he has suspicions about whether Cannon was being honest about his actions, noting “an eight- to nine-seconds yellow caution light at that intersection.”
“How much time and distance did the defendant have for his last best chance to not kill my son?” he asked.
The father said Cannon violated a number of laws — running a red light and failing to reduce speed — and alleged the man lied to police, could have been texting while driving and also likely was under the influence of OxyContin, a narcotic pain reliever, at the time of the wreck.
A call for comment to a phone number provided on the crash report for Cannon was not returned.
Smith criticized officers for not conducting an alcohol or drug test on Cannon and called into question the thoroughness of the investigation by Greenville police.
“Anyone that slams into and kills an innocent person in broad daylight on a public road should reasonably, immediately be a person of suspicion for drugs or alcohol as a crime had already been committed,” he said in the letter.
Montanye said an officer must see “some kind of impairment so that he believes it would be appropriate to test” or a fatality must be involved in order to require the surviving driver to undergo a test.
The younger Smith was pronounced dead later at Vidant Medical Center.
When a victim dies after the wreck, there’s a glitch in the law, Montanye said. It could be modified to say if there is a wreck and there is serious injury, that the other driver must submit to a test. “But that’s just not what the law is, unfortunately.”
“From what I’ve heard, his injuries sounded so serious that I think an officer could have assumed what the outcome was going to be, but we can’t get into assumptions when it comes to the law,” Montanye said. “Even if we think someone is going to die, the law just does not provide for that. It has to be that someone is dead or you have to see some signs of impairment.”
Montanye said she has not seen the report, but the investigating officer is “very experienced and has many, many years at Greenville Police Department and many years with the Traffic Safety Unit, and he did not charge DWI.”
Had a test been conducted and Cannon found to be under the influence, he could have been charged with felony death by vehicle, which carries a greater sentence of up to 88 months, or other heftier crimes.
Smith said Tuesday that he hopes a private investigation leads to greater charges because Cannon’s actions “mangled, mutilated and crushed” his son’s body to the extent that organ donation was not possible.
He encouraged anyone who witnessed the incident to contact The Daily Reflector since his family has been unable to reach witnesses listed on the crash report.
“I’m just completely mentally devastated,” he said. “My whole family is devastated — beyond devastated. We’re hurt. Of all the people on Earth, why do they have to take out the best?”
Contact Kristin Zachary at firstname.lastname@example.org and 252-329-9566 and follow her on Twitter @kzacharygdr.