March 17, 2010

Traffic deaths a legal conundrum


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Gordon Chibroski

Staff Writer

A driver in South Portland reaches to the floor of his car to get a CD, veers to the right for a split-second and hits a bicyclist from behind. The victim goes into a coma and dies several months later.

A driver in Standish, after an early shift at work, falls asleep at the wheel. He drifts into the breakdown lane and hits a pedestrian, killing him.

The Standish driver faces a charge of manslaughter, and could go to jail for as long as 20 years if convicted. The South Portland driver is not charged with any crime.

Why the different outcomes? What separates a tragic accident from a crime?

Those are some of the questions that Maribeth Lydon has been asking since her brother, John Lydon, was hit while riding his bike in South Portland on the afternoon of July 29, 2003.

The questions resurfaced last month when Lydon learned that a 71-year-old Standish man had been indicted by a Cumberland County grand jury in a traffic fatality.

Prosecutors say Lincoln Turner knew he was too tired to drive, but still got behind the wheel on Dec. 19, 2006. His vehicle struck and killed 17-year-old Frank Rideout.

Lydon sent a letter in February to Cumberland County's top prosecutor, District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, asking for an explanation. Lydon said she needed to have her voice heard.

''I couldn't believe that he didn't even get a ticket,'' Lydon said of the driver who hit her brother. ''I don't think anything should happen to him now. Too much time has passed. But I just wanted to ask the question and express my opinion.''

Anderson answered the letter, and in an interview this week she described the standard that must be met for prosecutors to seek an indictment.

Sometimes it's a fine line between cases that get prosecuted and those that don't.

''It takes an aggravating factor,'' Anderson said. ''It has to be beyond any standard of conduct that a reasonable and prudent person would do.''

If a driver is drunk or speeding excessively, and a person dies as a result of that conduct, that is the strongest type of case for prosecutors.

Momentary inattention or simply losing control of a vehicle typically does not pass the test for criminal conduct, Anderson said.


Last year, the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office brought vehicular-manslaughter charges against six people. Those cases are at various stages in the system.

''About half of the motor vehicle manslaughters we receive for review are terrible tragedies but they don't rise to the level of what we can prove as a crime,'' Anderson said. ''This office is pretty aggressive in trying to charge those cases.''

In the case of Frank Rideout's death in Standish, the District Attorney's Office sought, and won, an indictment. Turner is charged with manslaughter and reckless conduct.

''Mr. Turner admitted that he had been trying to get home, though he knew his extreme fatigue was causing him to nearly lose consciousness,'' Anderson wrote in her response to Lydon's letter. ''The essential difference between these two tragedies is that we had evidence that Mr. Turner chose to continue driving when he should have known that he was endangering others.''

Anderson noted that the Lydon family could seek relief through civil action. Maribeth Lydon said she considered that, but was advised against it because the driver did not have any ability to pay a potential judgment.

Although Lydon understands that prosecutors face difficult decisions, she questions the underlying legal standard.

Negligence driving -- even the routine kind that led to her brother's death -- should be treated as criminal conduct, Lydon said.

''If you're on the road, you have a responsibility to everyone else on the road. All it takes is one mistake,'' Lydon said.

She recalled her brother as a person who loved sports and enjoyed spending time with her children. He worked for Shaw's Supermarkets for 25 years.

On that July day in 2003, he was riding his bike on Cottage Road in South Portland. According to the city's accident report, 24-year-old Michael Robertshaw was driving in the same direction.

He briefly took his eyes off the road to retrieve a CD that had fallen on the passenger's side floor, and that's when he veered and the car hit Lydon.

Lydon remained in a coma for several weeks and was transferred to a brain injury rehabilitation center in Kennebunk. He eventually opened his eyes, but never regained movement or speech. He survived on breathing and feeding tubes.

He died in October 2004.

''I miss him every day,'' Maribeth Lydon said. ''The whole family dynamic changes when you lose someone.''


Anderson said it's difficult to tell grieving family members that her office won't prosecute.

''When we can't charge, what they hear is: Your loved one isn't important,'' Anderson said. ''They have lost a loved one, they are completely devastated and they're looking for relief.''

She recalled the death of 9-year-old Ryan Guthrie in October 2005.

Andrew Bernstein, a 49-year-old lawyer from Cape Elizabeth, was driving south on Interstate 295 in Falmouth in a downpour. Bernstein lost control of his car, crossed the median, hit the guardrail and veered back into oncoming traffic.

His car hit a Lexus driven by Jane Quirion of Benton. Her passenger, 9-year-old Ryan, was critically injured and died two days later.

Bernstein told investigators that he could not remember what happened.

His lawyer said a medical condition, not disclosed publicly, might have played a role in the crash, but he insisted that Bernstein did not act recklessly or negligently.

Anderson initially removed herself from the case because she went to law school with Bernstein.

She got involved several months later, when Guthrie's family questioned why the investigation had not been finished.

More than a year after the crash, Anderson told Ryan Guthrie's family that she did not have enough evidence to seek charges.

''We did everything that we could, and it just boiled down to a horrific tragedy,'' Anderson said.

Another memorable case illustrates a clear-cut example of criminal conduct, she said.

In 2002, 19-year-old Michael O'Brien was drunk and speeding -- at an estimated 110 mph -- when his car vaulted off Tukey's Bridge in Portland and landed on a jogging path 30 feet below.

His passengers, Jason Carr, Nathaniel MacConnell and Crystal Young, were killed, and O'Brien later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and drunken driving.

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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