Man fined $1,500 in fatal car accident Parents of teen victim seek to change law

November 14, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A 19-year-old Severna Park man was fined $1,500 in Anne Arundel Circuit Court yesterday for his role in a Ritchie Highway crash in April that killed another teen-ager. The punishment infuriated the victim's parents, who vowed to fight for tougher driving penalties.

Joseph Leigh Cornett was sentenced by Judge Martin A. Wolff for his actions behind the wheel April 5 in an accident that killed Bethany Anne Balasic, a 15-year-old honor student at Severna Park High School.

Bethany was thrown from Cornett's Mazda pickup about 9: 20 p.m. as he drove south on the shoulder of Ritchie Highway, ran a red light at Cypress Creek Road and collided with a Honda Accord, according to testimony in a two-day trial in September.

Wolff convicted Cornett on Sept. 25 of negligent driving, failure to reduce his speed and improper passing. The judge said testimony failed to prove that Cornett showed the "wanton and reckless disregard" for Bethany's life necessary for an auto manslaughter conviction.

Auto manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Wolff emphasized to the victim's parents in court yesterday that the $1,500 was the maximum fine permitted under state

motor vehicle laws.

But the limited range of penalties incensed the parents, Paul and Claudia Balasic, who vowed to lobby the General Assembly next year for stiffer penalties in such cases. "There's a real hole there, a real gap in the law," said Claudia Balasic.

She said Maryland's motor vehicle statutes have no offense besides auto manslaughter that allows judges to jail drivers responsible for highway fatalities.

She said she has contacted several state delegates and has been researching laws in other states.

She said she may work with legislators to draft a bill or push for legislation similar to a statute in New Jersey, where a death-by-auto provision allows violators to be jailed for up to five years.

The Honda in the accident that killed Bethany was driven by Justin Paul Heaps, 18, of Arnold, who was northbound on Ritchie Highway and was turning left onto Cypress Creek Road.

Bethany, 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.

Cornett's lawyer, T. Joseph Touhey, said there was no evidence that Cornett had consumed drugs or alcohol before the accident.

Cornett declined comment yesterday.

But Touhey said his client, a student at Anne Arundel Community College and an employee in his father's air-conditioning business, remains devastated by the accident. He has at times been suicidal, remains in therapy for depression and is haunted by his role in the death, Touhey said.

"He's suffering the pains of hell," Touhey said after the sentencing. "He'd rather be dead than alive right now."

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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