Driver is acquitted of manslaughter

December 01, 1993|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

A dump truck driver who testified that he did all he could to avoid an accident that killed a Columbia woman was found not guilty of manslaughter in Howard District Court yesterday.

While acquitted of the most serious charge against him, Gary Bernstein of Reisterstown was found guilty of five lesser charges for the April 29 accident that killed Suzanne Denise Bice and severely injured her 12-year-old son.

Judge R. Russell Sadler reached the verdict after a daylong trial that included testimony from the 37-year-old truck driver, who described how he tried to avoid the crash by shifting and braking his 65,230-pound vehicle.

"I tried everything I knew how to do to stop that vehicle," said Mr. Bernstein, who was living in Finksburg when he began driving a dump truck about two months before the crash. "It's not like I went out that day to go through an intersection and have an accident."

In the accident, Mr. Bernstein's dump truck, loaded with stone, collided with Mrs. Bice's Subaru and two other cars in the Route 175 intersection with Thunder Hill Road.

Mrs. Bice, 43, was killed instantly. Her son, Phillip, a passenger in the car, was in a coma for a month after the crash.

Police investigators learned after the accident that Mr. Bernstein was operating the truck with a license with his picture and his brother's name. His own license had been revoked.

The Bice family is seeking $50 million in damages in a lawsuit filed against Mr. Bernstein and his wife, Martine Metz Bernstein, who is listed as the truck's owner. The case is pending in Howard Circuit Court.

Phillip attended part of yesterday's trial with his father Steve and other relatives. Friends and members of Mr. Bernstein's family also were in the courtroom.

Mr. Bernstein, who also operated trucks while in the army in the 1970s, was found guilty of negligent driving, operating an unsafe vehicle, running a red light, and two counts of failing to control his vehicle's speed.

Before testimony started, Mr. Bernstein pleaded guilty to driving with a revoked license, displaying a fictitious license, obtaining a license through misrepresentation, carrying an uncovered load and making false statements to police.

Mr. Bernstein could be sentenced to up to 20 months in jail and fined up to $5,000. Judge Sadler did not schedule a sentencing hearing for Mr. Bernstein, pending the completion of a report by the county Department of Parole and Probation.

l The truck driver could have been sentenced to 10 years in prison had he been convicted of manslaughter by automobile.

To win such a conviction, prosecutors would have had to prove that Mr. Bernstein caused the accident by gross negligence with a wanton disregard for human life.

Thomas Morrow, a Towson attorney for Mr. Bernstein, argued in his closing statement that the prosecution failed to meet its burden for a manslaughter conviction.

"This is not wanton disregard for human life," Mr. Morrow said. "This is an individual who did everything he could."

Mr. Morrow noted that his client attempted to swerve around Mrs. Bice's car and another vehicle before striking them and then pushing the Bice vehicle into a third car.

He also pointed to testimony from two other truck drivers who said that a dump truck's brakes could fail when a driver forcibly applied them in an emergency situation.

But Assistant State's Attorney Gary Wiessner argued in his statement that Mr. Bernstein did not tell the truth when he testified that he tried to stop his eastbound dump truck when he saw the traffic light turn yellow, then red.

Mr. Wiessner said the only effort Mr. Bernstein made to avoid a collision was to blow his horn to get other motorists out of his way.

"He hit that intersection at full speed," Mr. Wiessner said. "He intentionally ran a red light. . . . He didn't try to stop. He didn't attempt to down shift."

Mr. Wiessner introduced testimony from police accident specialists who said four of Mr. Bernstein's six truck brakes were faulty and could have been easily corrected with a wrench.

The prosecutor argued that Mr. Bernstein should have discovered the brake problem during four other trips he took in the hours before the crash.

In addition, two motorists who saw the collision testified for the prosecution that Mr. Bernstein ran the red light without appearing to try to stop the vehicle.

The motorists estimated that the truck was traveling at about 50 mph, which is the speed limit on Route 175.

"The light turned red," Margaret Furey of Columbia testified. "I knew he wasn't going to stop. He wasn't slowing down at all."

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