Man convicted of lesser charge in fatal accident Girl, 15, was killed in April 5 collision

September 26, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A 19-year-old Severna Park man was convicted in Anne Arundel Circuit Court yesterday of negligent driving in an April accident that killed a 15-year-old honor student.

Judge Martin A. Wolff acquitted Joseph Leigh Cornett of a more serious charge, auto manslaughter, in the April 5 accident that killed Bethany Anne Balasic, who was a passenger in Cornett's pickup.

Cornett could get up to two months in jail and a $500 fine when he is sentenced Nov. 13. He could have been sentenced to 10 years in prison for auto manslaughter.

Judge Wolff said testimony in a two-day trial failed to prove that Cornett's driving showed the "wanton and reckless disregard" for Balasic's life necessary to convict him of auto manslaughter.

"I find it is negligent driving, it is improper driving, but it does not meet the burden of a manslaughter charge," Wolff told a courtroom packed with relatives of Cornett and the victim.

Claudia Balasic, the victim's mother, said later that she understood the judge's reasoning but was disappointed.

"It's not OK, it's just not right, that someone's dead and this happens," she said.

Balasic was a freshman at Severna Park High School, where she played field hockey, lacrosse, basketball and softball. She and Cornett were on their way to a movie when the accident occurred.

Cornett declined to comment, but his lawyer said the judge's decision was based on an accurate interpretation of Maryland's mo tor vehicle laws.

"Speed and negligence just do not add up to manslaughter," said T. Joseph Touhey. "You have to show a mind-set that proves a wanton and reckless disregard for human life, and that just wasn't the case here."

Touhey said there was no evidence that Cornett consumed drugs or alcohol before the accident.

Balasic was thrown from Cornett's Mazda pickup as he drove south on the shoulder of Ritchie Highway about 9: 20 p.m.

Cornett ran a red light at the intersection with Cypress Creek Road, and his truck collided with a Honda Accord driven by Justin Paul Heaps, 18, of Arnold, who had been driving north on Ritchie Highway and was turning left onto Cypress Creek Road.

Cornett was going 37 to 39 mph when the vehicles collided, according to testimony.

A witness, George W. Cranford of Bowie, testified that he was stopped at the light in a southbound lane of Ritchie Highway at Cypress Creek Lane when Cornett sped by so fast that it shook his Dodge Caravan and prompted his 6-year-old son to cry out, "Whoa."

Cornett's truck somersaulted through the intersection.

Cranford said he was unsure whether anyone was seriously hurt until he saw that the passenger had been thrown out of the truck.

Balasic, who was not wearing a seat belt, died of head and chest injuries less than an hour after the accident. Cornett and Heaps received minor injuries.

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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