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Judge rejects plea DUI plea

April 17, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Margaret Walker came to court Friday afternoon carrying a photograph and a two-page letter that she intended to read to the dump truck driver who is charged with causing a multiple-car wreck that killed her son.

Walker never got the chance. The letter went home unread and the photo of Terry Walker, 17, remained tucked away.

Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes, citing the victims' wishes, rejected a plea agreement in the case of Brian W. Strobridge, 39, and instead ordered that a trial be held. The trial is set to begin May 25.

Three people were killed in the wreck, which happened around 4:45 p.m. July 10, 2002, on W.Va. 9 east of Martinsburg at the Opequon Creek bridge. Strobridge's empty dump truck went into the opposite traffic lane and hit five cars, according to police. Debris hit a sixth car, police said.

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At trial, Strobridge will face the charges on which he originally was indicted: three counts of DUI causing death, two counts of DUI causing injury and several traffic offenses, Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely said.

More than 50 people crowded into Wilkes' courtroom Friday afternoon for the hearing, including those injured in the wreck and friends and family members of those killed.

"Even though I wanted it to go to trial, I was surprised," Walker said of Wilkes' ruling. "I thought it would be over with today."

Terry Walker's body was trapped in the wreckage of his Jeep Wrangler for several hours after the collision, records show. His passenger, Carleton Wilcox, 20, of Charles Town, W.Va., also died after being ejected from the Jeep.

A third person, Marion Rao, 51, of Martinsburg, was killed after her Toyota passenger car was hit head-on. Her car was the first one hit, records indicate.

"My goal right now is to work with the Legislature to write a bill to change the law. Blood needs to be drawn anytime that there is a vehicular crash, especially when there's a fatality involved," Margaret Walker said. "That's what's going to make sense for me."

Strobridge was offered the plea bargain after Games-Neely realized a blood sample taken from Strobridge after the wreck was lost, Games-Neely has said. Strobridge had agreed in court to plead guilty to three misdemeanor counts of negligent homicide, each of which carries a sentence of up to one year in jail.

Although the blood sample "would have gotten us beyond a reasonable doubt," Games-Neely said she will put on the best case she can. "I'm never going to have the blood so I have to proceed without it.

"I'm going to go in there with my heart on my sleeve," she said.

Wilkes told those in the courtroom that he received seven letters from people against the plea, and that probation officer Mark Hofe interviewed all of the surviving victims, who unanimously opposed the plea bargain.

Victims' feelings play a large role in whether he accepts or rejects a plea bargain, Wilkes said. He then looked toward those in the audience and asked whether everyone did, in fact, oppose the plea bargain.

His only answer was a whispered "Yes, sir" from one man.

After Wilkes said he was rejecting the plea, whispers of "I'm shocked" and "I'm surprised" filtered through the crowd.

"The best decision was made and we'll go from there," Wilcox's father, Khalil Abdul-Wali, said outside of the courtroom.

His ex-wife, Edith Wilcox, said she was happy with the decision.

"My son deserved more. His life meant more to me than anything," she said. "I just hope the next step is actually fulfilled ... justice is served."

Games-Neely said afterward that she was not surprised.

During the trial, Games-Neely will introduce as evidence a urine sample which showed cocaine was present in Strobridge's system, she said.

However, cocaine can remain in a person's urinary tract for three to four days after one uses the drug. Cocaine remains in the bloodstream for one to eight hours, Games-Neely said.

The Public Service Commission officer who handled the case, John Skaggs, made sure the urine sample was sent to a laboratory, but failed to wait around long enough at City Hospital to also ensure the blood sample was sent, Games-Neely said. Public Service Commission officers respond to all wrecks that involve commercial vehicles.

Rather than being sent to the laboratory, the blood sample sat around at City Hospital and was, per procedure, destroyed after seven days, Games-Neely and City Hospital spokeswoman Teresa McCabe have said.

Blood normally is drawn if a person involved in a wreck shows signs of intoxication. Strobridge, who only showed two of 12 symptoms commonly associated with drugged drivers, had to have blood drawn simply because he had a commercial driver's license. All such drivers must submit to blood and urine tests, Games-Neely said.

The symptoms Strobridge showed were fatigue and erratic driving, records indicate.

Earlier on the day of the fatal wreck, a West Virginia State Police trooper cited Strobridge for driving left of center, Games-Neely said.

Strobridge's attorney, Robert Stone, and Games-Neely agreed that the trial likely will last two or three days.

Strobridge remains in Eastern Regional Jail. He initially was freed on bail which was revoked March 12, 2003, after he failed a drug test, according to court records.

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