Charges dropped before fatal crash

Howard County reviewing February case involving driver in Thanksgiving accident

November 29, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

The man charged with killing a Marine on leave and his date in a drunken-driving incident on Thanksgiving had been cited for drunken driving months earlier but the case was dropped for reasons that are now the subject of two internal reviews by Howard County.

On Feb. 5, Eduardo Raul Morales-Soriano, 25, was "unable to maintain his balance" as police demonstrated instructions for a field sobriety test, said Wayne Kirwan, a spokesman for Howard County State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone. Morales-Soriano then refused a Breathalyzer test, Kirwan said.

However, he was allowed to leave the scene of the accident in a parking lot in the 5800 block of Robert Oliver Place in Columbia - about five miles from the Thanksgiving crash - with four citations. A relative drove him away from the site of the 6 p.m. crash, in which no one was injured, officials said.

Marine Cpl. Brian Mathews, 21, of Columbia and his date, Jennifer Bower, 24, of Montgomery County were killed shortly after 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving while waiting at a stoplight at Route 175 and Route 108. Morales-Soriano has been charged with two counts of manslaughter while intoxicated and two counts of homicide by motor vehicle.

Mathews, who had served eight months in Iraq and completed another tour of duty in the Pacific, was based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The 2003 Howard High School graduate had come home for the holidays and was on his second date with Bower. They were scheduled to be in a wedding in June and had been introduced by the bride and groom.

Police said Morales-Soriano's blood-alcohol level was .32, four times the legal limit, after the accident, in which his Nissan Sentra slammed into Bower's Toyota Corolla from behind.

In April, citing "weak evidence," prosecutors dropped all charges in the February case, enabling Morales-Soriano to retrieve his driver's license, which police had confiscated when he refused the Breathalyzer test. He did not pay a fine or have points added to his license. Police were unable yesterday to provide further details of the accident.

Under Maryland law, a driver who refuses a Breathalyzer test must automatically forfeit his driver's license for 120 days in a first offense. But Morales-Soriano's license was not suspended after the February accident.

Reading from a police report, Kirwan said that the officer mistakenly handed Morales-Soriano a form - documenting that he had refused the breath test for alcohol - that should have been sent to the Motor Vehicle Administration. The form, had it reached the MVA, would have triggered the suspension of Morales-Soriano's license and an administrative hearing.

"There was no way to suspend his license or take any kind of action if the information wasn't reported to us," said Buel C. Young, a spokesman for the MVA.

Sherry Llewellyn, a spokeswoman for Howard County police, said there were problems with the February case but was unable to provide specifics.

"When the state's attorney reviewed the case file, it was not as strong as it could have been," she said. "And in our review of that file, we also could see areas where the case could have been stronger."

Llewellyn said that has prompted a more in-depth police review, and Kirwan said senior staff members in the state's attorney's office will review the matter.

Caroline Cash, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the Chesapeake region, said her organization is trying to change state law so that suspected drunken drivers cannot refuse a Breathalyzer test.

"They can refuse, and we're hoping to change that through the legislative process," she said.

Under current law, drivers are required to undergo a sobriety test after accidents that result in life-threatening injury, such as the Thanksgiving crash.

Cash said Morales-Soriano's blood alcohol level on Thanksgiving was the highest she had ever heard of. The legal limit in Maryland is .08.

"It's outrageous," she said. "I can't give you a specific number of drinks, and I wish I knew the level where someone could potentially die from alcohol poisoning, because he had to have been close."

A young man who answered the door at Morales-Soriano's Sandy Street address in Laurel said yesterday that family members were not available for comment. The neat, two-story house was covered with Christmas lights.

Court records show that Morales-Soriano has lived in Maryland for about a year, was born in Mexico and worked as a landscaper. Howard County police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials began investigating his immigration status yesterday.

"We were contacted by the police and we've started an investigation into his status," said James Dinkins, acting special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Baltimore office.

Morales-Soriano turned in his North Carolina driver's license and received a Maryland license, according to Kirwan.

"He provided a valid out-of-state license and proof of residency," said Young, the MVA spokesman.

Trudy Mathews said yesterday that she didn't "want any anger and hatred in [her] heart right now" and was choosing to focus on her son, rather than concerns about whether Morales-Soriano should have been able to drive.

"I have no room in my heart to concentrate on that part of it," she said.

The family will hold a viewing from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. today at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia.

Sun reporters John-John Williams, Andrew A. Green, Matthew Hay Brown, Matthew Dolan and Nick Madigan contributed to this article.

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