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Court views video of victim impact statement

December 01, 1998

Victim statementBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




Mary Ellen "Meg" Clarke couldn't face the drunken driver who caused her husband's death in May, but thanks to a video camera and a television screen, she appeared in court on Monday.

After agreeing to a plea bargain, Jennifer Ann Hight watched with the rest of the court as Clarke's victim impact statement was played.

Washington County Circuit Judge John H. McDowell sentenced Hight, 23, to seven years in prison for manslaughter by motor vehicle and driving while intoxicated. He also sentenced her to five years' probation after she gets out of prison.

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Clarke's testimony, which lasted about 7 1/2 minutes and was interspersed with pictures of her husband, is believed to be the first of its kind in Washington County.

Doctors and other expert witnesses sometimes give videotaped testimony in civil cases.

In addition, children in criminal cases sometimes testify by video camera from another room. But unlike that live testimony, Clarke's statement was filmed two weeks ago.

In it, Clarke tearfully discussed the devastation that her husband's death has caused. She held her 5-week-old son, William III.

"Bill was my life," she said. "Whatever the maximum penalty is for killing my husband, it can't be enough."

Hight, of 11570 Airport Road in Waynesboro, Pa., wiped away her own tears as the tape rolled. By the end, she was openly sobbing.

"I can't express how sorry I am," Hight said before McDowell sentenced her. "I know that doesn't make it any better, but I am truly sorry."

Hight was surrounded on Monday by her fiance, and her parents and siblings, who made the trip from her native Tennessee.

Clarke filmed her statement about two weeks ago in a home studio in Greencastle, Pa. At the time, she said she was devastated by the accident.

"There's so many vivid images about the accident," she said. "I just couldn't take one more. It's just too hard."

William Francis Clarke, 42, was riding his motorcycle to work at Zefer Operations Inc. in Fairfield, Pa., at about 7 a.m. on May 18, according to police reports and court records.

A 1993 Ford Mustang struck the motorcycle from behind at Rinehart Road and Md. 418, throwing Clarke. He was pronounced dead at Washington County Hospital.

"He went one way, breaking just about every bone in his body," his wife said. "The bike went the other way."

When Meg Clarke learned of her husband's death, she was pregnant with their only child.

Meg Clarke said William III, who was born after his father's death, was conceived after three years of trying to have a baby.

Even months later, Clarke said she suffers excruciating emotional pain.

"It just doesn't go away. And when it comes, it comes so hard," she said.

From the bench, McDowell said Clarke's videotaped message carried a great deal of impact. Oliver J. Cejka Jr., Hight's attorney, agreed.

"I've never heard a more eloquent statement from a victim," he said in court.

In an interview, Cejka said he had never seen a witness testify by videotape.

"It's not usually done, but it's typical of the trend of the courts to modernize and use technology," he said.

Cejka said the Washington County State's Attorney's Office kept him informed about the tape and he did not object to it.

He said he was told "there would be no surprises, and I wasn't surprised."

Clarke was able to testify on tape thanks to Victims Impact Video, a nonprofit organization based in Owings Mills, Md.

Carol Clews and her husband formed the group about three months ago to help victims who could not make court appearances for physical or emotional reasons.

"In this particular case, the woman wants her presence known, but doesn't feel strong enough emotionally to face this individual," Clews said.

This was the third victim impact statement the group has taped, Clews said. In a previous case, the group filmed several family members who would be unable to attend a parole hearing in California, she said.

Clews said she does not know of any other organization that provides the service.

In an interview, McDowell said he has never seen a victim's impact statement given through a videotape and has never heard of it happening locally.

But he said a judge would be hard pressed not to allow a video statement.

"The victim or the victim's representatives have the right to say just about anything," McDowell said. "Today's situation was crafted to fit the victim's situation more that anything else."

In exchange for Hight's guilty pleas on Monday, other charges, including reckless and negligent driving, were dropped.

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