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Grief prompts crusade to change W.Va. hit-and-run laws

March 01, 1998|By AMY WALLAUER

by Ric Dugan / staff photographer

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Hit and Run lawGrief prompts crusade to change W.Va. hit-and-run laws

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The hit-and-run death of a classmate in September devastated students at Faith Christian Academy in Martinsburg.

When the motorist was charged, devastation turned to anger: The driver charged with hitting Chris May and fleeing the scene was charged with misdemeanors.

"It's kind of interesting you can hit and kill someone and the absolute minimum (penalty) is a $100 fine," said Tim Helman, 18, a senior at Faith Christian Academy and one of May's friends.


The penalties inspired Helman and classmate Claire Gibson, 17, to research the laws, calling legislators to find out why there wasn't a more severe penalty.

Their perseverance got the attention of Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, who is now trying to change the laws.

Helman approached Overington at a town meeting this fall and explained the situation. Two months later, Overington introduced a bill that calls for harsher penalties.

The bill was prompted by May's death, Overington said.

With the possibility of a stiffer sentence, a drunken driver involved in an accident may think twice about leaving the scene, Overington said. With the current law, there's no incentive for a driver to stay, he said.

"If (the driver) came back the next day, or fled the scene after he was DUI, they can come back the next day and say, 'Yes it was me,' and the blood alcohol level would not be there," Overington said.

The way the law is now, a hit-and-run driver who injures or kills another person can be charged with leaving the scene of an accident. The penalty is 30 days to one year in jail and a $100 to $1,000 fine.

Overington's proposal creates a separate criminal offense for hit-and-run accidents that cause death or injury, and makes the crime a felony.

"It was just such a tragedy. The intent is to make that a serious crime and maybe that would cause the person to stop and lend assistance," Overington said. "It might make a difference if they knew it was a felony (to leave.)"

May, 16, was a junior at Faith Christian Academy, a talented basketball player who was quiet but well-liked, Gibson said.

"He was just a really great guy," Gibson said. "We used to carpool together when we were in grade school. You never, ever thought anything like that would happen."

The Shepherdstown, W.Va., teen was riding his bicycle home from work on Sept. 24 when a pickup truck struck him from behind at the intersection of Old Martinsburg Road, about two miles outside of Shepherdstown.

He was flown by helicopter to Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va., where he was pronounced dead about two hours later.

Barry C. Harper, 41, of Shepherdstown, turned himself in to police two days later. He was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, failing to render aid, traffic violations and failure to report an accident - each a misdemeanor.

Harper was released on $25,000 bond. His preliminary hearing earlier this month was postponed.

Helman and Gibson wanted other people to know what the penalties are for a fatal hit-and-run, so they began a social studies project they called, "Hit and Run: Sugar-coated Murder."

They polled 25 Berkeley County residents and asked them if they knew the penalty and what they think it should be.

Gibson said the majority were appalled at the law and support changing it.

"They all agreed it should be much stiffer than just a traffic-related misdemeanor," Gibson said. "We were shocked - no one yet had brought this to their attention."

The project won first place at the school's social studies fair and will be judged at an upcoming countywide competition.

But more importantly, the students say, their tenacity brought public awareness and possible changes in the law.

"This isn't about revenge," Helman said. "It's more about justice for people in the future."

The bill has been referred to the judiciary committee. Because it was introduced so late in the session, it may not come up for a vote this year, Overington said.

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