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December 7th, 2011

Virginia Justice for Cyclist Left in Coma By Reckless Driver

Posted in Cycling, Law, Virginia by MB

You might have heard of the case of Michael Sprick, a German cyclo-tourist who has been in a coma since October.  He was enjoying the roads near Roanoke, Virginia as part of a NY-Miami tour, when he was hit by a truck driven by Norman Marchant.  Mr. Marchant was convicted of driving with a suspended license and reckless driving yesterday.  It appears he was fined $600.  The 90-day jail sentence was suspended.  I want to talk a little more about what happened, and how authorities responded, but I think it’s best to start off with a report from Carol Colby, who was present for the trial.

In my opinion, today’s hearing went well, probably as well as it could have. Norman Marchant was convicted of both offenses, driving on a suspended license and reckless driving. I couldn’t hear the sentencing portion very well, but I believe he received a $100 fine (suspended) on the license charge (explanation below), and a 90-day jail sentence (suspended) and $500 fine on the reckless driving.

Judge Jacqueline F. Ward Talevi, Chief Judge of both Roanoke City and County General District courts, presided over today’s cases as a substitute judge. As anticipated, Erin DeHart represented the Commonwealth, while Radford attorney James Turk represented Marchant.

VSP Trooper Troy Dalton testified first. He said that when he was dispatched to the scene on October 8, Marchant told him that he had been driving his truck–a Merita bread truck that some of the witnesses referred to as a panel truck–down a mountain on a stretch of Route 100 when he saw a cyclist in the right lane. He claimed at the time that he was going to steer or change into the left lane (I couldn’t hear too well) but that a bluish car passed him on the left, then cut in front of him. He thought he was clear of the bike before impact, and also suggested, on the scene, that perhaps the bike had come toward him. He left the scene in pursuit of the blue car’s license tag number but was unable to get close, so he turned around and returned to the scene of the crash. At the scene, Trooper Dalton asked Marchant whether he had seen the cyclist–could he say what color jersey he was wearing or whether he was wearing a helmet? Marchant could not provide any such details. Dalton discovered that Marchant’s license had been suspended, and Marchant said that he was unaware of that. He thought he had taken care of a previous fine, upon which the suspension was based (more on that in Marchant’s testimony below).

Two eyewitnesses, Kathy and Jerry Bennett, provided invaluable testimony about the crash. Kathy testified that she was the passenger in her husband’s truck on that day, and they saw the panel truck and a cyclist ahead of them as they came out of a curve at the top of the mountain, onto a straight stretch. There were no other vehicles around. She said the bike was to the right side of the white line on the right of the road, and a short distance later, they saw bike debris in motion, while the panel truck continued on. They stopped at the scene of the crash. Jerry got out to aid the cyclist, while she got behind the wheel and proceeded down Rte. 100 to obtain the truck’s license tag number. A short distance later, she saw a panel truck returning from the opposite direction, assumed it was the same truck, and returned to the scene herself. She again stated that there were no other vehicles around at this time. DeHart offered three photographs of the road in this area. Turk asked Kathy Bennett a number of question about distances, and where were you on the curve, and where were the truck and the cyclist; he seemed to be trying to intimate that perhaps her visibility wasn’t clear. Though she was visibly nervous, she held her own.

Jerry Bennett testified that when the cyclist came into view after they crested the mountain, his wife pointed it out and instructed him to move into the left lane. He said, “The bicycle was where it should have been”–to the right of the white line, explaining that the cyclist’s entire body was even outside the line. Jerry saw the impact, pulled over and stayed to assist, while his wife got back into the truck in pursuit of the panel truck’s tag number. He stated that it wasn’t long before the rescue squad arrived, maybe five to ten minutes. I believe he also answered questions using DeHart’s photographs, though I’m not sure. The Commonwealth rested its case after his testimony.

Norman Marchant first explained the circumstances of his suspended license. The county where he lives (if he said which one, I didn’t catch it) had discontinued its requirement for a county tag or sticker the previous year. However, while the program ended in December, the county had stopped issuing stickers in July. He was cited in the interim period, and was able to explain this to the judge at his hearing, where his case was dismissed. He said that he was unaware of having to pay court costs after the case was dismissed; apparently, the failure to pay these costs was what led to his license suspension, about which he said he received no notice and remained unaware until Trooper Dalton cited him on Saturday, October 8. He went to the courthouse to pay the court costs on Monday, October 10, but it was closed for the Columbus Day holiday. His dad took him there on Tuesday, he paid the costs, then went to the DMV to have his license reinstated.

As to the crash, he testifies that he travels this route for work daily. He said that his speed was 50 – 55 mph coming down the mountain, explaining later on cross examination that the company’s trucks are governed to go no faster than 60 – 62 mph. Now, the acoustics in the courtroom were terrible, but I believe that his attorney asked him if he noticed the Bennett vehicle behind him, and his response was that after the impact, he saw them pull off. This seems to conflict with his later testimony. It’s possible I heard wrong, but Michael Sprick’s family had the foresight to have a court reporter transcribe the hearing, so there will be a record of this testimony for later use, in a civil case.

He testified that the bicycle had large bags on it, and the bike itself was a little to the left of the white line. He “went to get over,” and a mid-size, bluish-grey car, maybe an Olds or Buick, sped up real fast, passing him in the lane to his left. He couldn’t see the driver or any passengers, as his truck is higher than the car. Then there was “a bump.” The car took off at a high rate of speed, and he pursued, trying to get its tag number. He realized that he could not, and so turned around in the crossover and returned to the crash scene. I didn’t write notes about this, but I’m almost certain that at this point in the testimony, he denied having seen the Bennett’s vehicle behind him, which would contradict his earlier statement. On further questioning about how far to the left he had moved to avoid the bicycle, he said that his left tires were on or to the left of the center line. Turk asked if he felt terrible about the accident. It sounded to me as though Marchant got choked up before answering, “Very much so.” On cross examination, Marchant added that he might have hit his horn as the car was passing him, and that he was going to try to get in the left lane. When asked if he had slowed down, he answered, “Yeah, I felt I did.”

In her summation, DeHart, among other points, argued that the cyclist should have been given all the respect of the other vehicle. Turk made a number of unseemly arguments, including that Marchant’s actions did not rise to the level of a danger to life, limb or property warranting a reckless driving charge (really?!?!); that there was room for error in what the Bennetts saw; and that there was no other reason for Marchant to have driven on except in pursuit of the other vehicle’s tag number. DeHart rebutted that last argument, pointing out (as best I could hear) that he might have been scared and thought to flee.

We were lucky to have Judge Talevi today. She was in a difficult position, but she proved herself a tough jurist. She began by telling the defendant, “No doubt this [the day of the crash] was one of the most difficult days of your life,” and that she knows he is filled with regret. On the suspended license charge, some documents from his previous hearing were in evidence, including a form he had signed which showed that he was or should have been aware of the need to pay court costs. Yet she took into account that he acted immediately after October 8 to pay those costs and reinstate his license. She found him guilty on the charge and fined him $100, suspended due to his quick action.

As to the reckless driving charge, she began by saying this was a “very, very troubling case.” After considering the testimony that Mr. Bennett saw the accident but Mrs. Bennett did not, the judge surmised that Mrs. Bennett would have seen another car had there been one. She accepted the Bennetts’ testimony, and did not believe Marchant’s account. She concluded that the cyclist was not in Marchant’s lane of travel, and that Marchant operated his vehicle inappropriately, and adjudged him guilty of reckless driving.

At this point, the lawyers argued about what penalty should be imposed. DeHart brought up the critical impact the crash has had on Sprick. This was the first mention of the extent of his injuries. She asked the judge to consider a suspended judgment (not sure what that means) and that Marchant’s license be suspended and a hefty fine imposed. Turk argued against all that. The judge said that had there been evidence that Marchant had swerved, she would impose a significant jail sentence. Given the evidence, however, she sentenced him to 90 days in jail, suspended, and imposed a $500 fine. She reviewed his driving record critically, she said, and found that he had 5 points against him already. I’m really confused about this, but she decided not to suspend his license. Would reckless driving on top of 5 points mean an automatic suspension? I didn’t understand that decision.

In the hallway following the hearing, four of us who had attended (Jerry Ford from Blacksburg, Barbara Duerk from Roanoke, and Katy Miller and myself from Radford) spoke with Jerry and Kathy Bennett, Erin DeHart, and Trooper Dalton. The Bennetts were interested in finding out about Michael’s condition and his family’s plans. It was uplifting to listen to each of them share their accounts of how so many people–the Bennetts who stopped to help and bore testimony today, Trooper Dalton, who contacted the German consulate, Barbara, who hosted Michael’s sister and has visited him in the hospital every single day–and people like Larry Blakey, who cut short his transcontinental bike trip to fly to Roanoke on his own dime, as well as Alinda Perrine, Bobby Guet and the staff of Free Spirit Adventures in Caldwell, WV, all came together to help Michael. I hope you don’t mind my sharing my impression that these people, who put aside the demands of their ordinary lives to assist this stranger in need, make my heart feel good. Think of them, perhaps, should you lose hope in your fellow human creatures.

Finally, I believe that we should not vilify Norman Marchant. He seems to be remorseful for the consequences of his actions. And I don’t think any good will come of thinking of him as an enemy, an “other.” Was the sentence steep enough? Would any sentence be? Our judge today well understood the gravity of what she heard, and I have no doubt that she applied her best judgment in answer to it. I feel positive about today’s hearing, as do at least two of the other audience members (I haven’t compared notes with Jerry Ford).

So, before I start – do you think Virginia’s justice system worked, here?

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3 comments

  1. Andy says:

    It doesn’t appear so. I thought people went to jail all the time for reckless driving in Virginia. Yet this guy gets a suspended sentence for hitting a cyclist.

    December 8th, 2011 at 9:38 am

  2. James says:

    @Andy He was given a jail sentence but it was suspended.

    To the larger question, Was Justice served?? No, I dont believe so. t seems to be a common problem that people consistently get little or no real punishment for injuring road users who are more exposed. I’d include motorcycle riders in this group. Until people think that there are real consequences to injuring others, even accidentally, these kind of things will continue to occur. I dont think “an example” should be made of Mr.Marchant, but I do believe that this kind of negligence calls for more than just a slap on the wrist. If you put someone in the hospital much less in a coma, it should cost you more than a couple hundred dollars for a laywer.

    December 9th, 2011 at 12:09 pm

  3. ASD says:

    f th dmbss bcyclst hd hd hs srry ss ff th rd whr h blngs, h wld hv bn fn. m bt sck f ll ths mltnt bcyclsts tht thnk thy shld b llwd t rd n th lft ln f vry ntrstt n ths cntry. ll f y r slf cntrd sshls wh r t t gt n vry thr mtrst’s wy. Y r ll bnch f nttld, rrgnt prcks.

    [Where are the vowels?]
    ASD is a troll. Since trolls can only grunt, his comment was adjusted as well.

    January 15th, 2012 at 10:46 pm