THE WOODLAWN bus stop tragedy would have been much !! easier to cope with had Raymond Charles Haney been tearing down the road, drunk, at 85 mph. But he wasn't under the influence of alcohol last July when his car plowed into two young mothers and their children, killing five people near the Social Security Adminstration headquarters.
And while he might have been going too fast, Baltimore County police couldn't confirm during his trial this week that he was traveling faster than 30 mph. To muddle matters further, witnesses testified they saw another car weaving and speeding, bolstering the defendant's claim that he swerved to avoid someone else.
The evidence was not there to convict him of vehicular manslaughter. The courts have defined that as driving with wanton disregard for life -- doing something you know likely will hurt somebody. Prosecutors could not prove more than minor speeding and recklessness.
Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge John G. Turnbull II had no choice but to acquit Mr. Haney of the most serious charge. In that sense, the verdict was fair. Still, the judge's ruling leaves people unsettled. Their sense of justice says that a person responsible for five deaths should pay a greater price than $5,000 in fines and court costs.
True, Mr. Haney has to live with his actions. But that is a self-inflicted, and therefore optional, punishment. What remains wanting is a sign that the judicial system does not excuse negligence that hurts others, even negligence of the minor sort -- the kind that Raymond Haney committed, as do thousands of motorists every day. Driving 40 mph in a 25 mph zone might not constitute disregard for life. But if such an infraction leaves innocents injured or worse, should not the law treat that seriously?
This case exposes a glaring gap in Maryland law -- the lack of a "negligent homicide" statute, requiring proof only of negligence, with a jail sentence less severe than for manslaughter. The defendant in such a case does not belong in prison for 25 years. But a modest term, served perhaps on home detention or through other alternative sentencing, would satisfy our collective conscience, which tells us people who make mistakes that cause grievous harm ought not be able merely to walk away.
Pub Date: 5/17/96