Thursday, July 24, 2014





Legislators vow to fight for 'Kevin's law'

Measure would close loophole giving hit-and-run drivers an incentive to flee the scene


May 03. 2014 12:12AM

By - rdupuis@civitasmedia.com






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WILKES-BARRE — Kevin Miller and Sean Pearce never knew each other, but they share a tragic common bond: the Dallas five-year-old and the 29-year-old Indiana County cyclist both were killed by hit-and-run drivers.
In death, they share another bond: both cases have become a focus for families, lawmakers and prosecutors seeking finally to close a loophole in Pennsylvania law many blame for giving hit-and-run drivers an incentive to flee the scene — especially if the motorist is driving under the influence.
Under state law, homicide by vehicle while DUI carries a three-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. Leaving the scene of an accident involving death carries only a one-year mandatory minimum sentence. Critics of the current legislation say the two crimes should carry the same penalty, so drivers won't benefit by running away.
“These are bills people can rally around and push for. Community pressure from here and elsewhere can help make a difference,” state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, said Friday.
Together with Kevin's family, Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis and other area legislators, Baker hopes that the two-to-five year sentence handed down against Thomas Walter Letteer Jr., the man who ran over Kevin, can serve as a starting point for reviving efforts to amend the law where previous attempts fell short, including a 2012 change called “Sean's Law,” in Pearce's memory.
The loophole
Following more than 14 months of denials and fighting the charges, Letteer pleaded guilty in March to accidents involving death, a second-degree felony, in connection with the Dec. 21, 2012, crash that killed Kevin on North Street in Wilkes-Barre.
Prosecutors allege that Letteer had been drinking alcohol at a West Wyoming house party prior to hitting Kevin as he and his family were leaving a Christmas party, and that this was his motivation for fleeing — exactly the reaction cited by those seeking a change in the law.
“This loophole actually encourages defendants who have killed a human being to take the chance of getting away or saving two years in prison,” Salavantis said.
“The tragic circumstances of young Kevin Miller and his family make a compelling case for change,” Baker said. “Offenders should not get a break under the law because of their irresponsible and callous actions.”
As a second-degree felony, accidents involving death theoretically carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine, but someone like Letteer, without a previous criminal history, would face much less.
Letteer on Thursday walked into court facing a 12-to-16 month guideline range. The sentence handed down by Luzerne County Judge Joseph Sklarosky Jr. exceeded that range — based, the judge said, on aggravating factors including Kevin's age, Letteer's dishonesty with investigators (police who interviewed Letteer two days after the crash said he told them had not been in Wilkes-Barre on Dec. 21, and never goes to Wilkes-Barre) and what the judge perceived as lack of remorse.
Sklarosky's sentence clearly was well above the minimum and above the guideline range, a point stressed by Salavantis and prosecutors on Thursday.
“I think the family and I have made the same calculation: we don't know what the right sentence is, but this is not the right sentence,” state Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, said Friday.
Legislative battle
Working with Pearce’s family and other relatives of hit-and-run victims, Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, introduced legislation to close the loophole in four consecutive sessions, starting in 2005, the same year Pearce was killed. Those bills were not enacted and expired.
Carroll, who sits on the state House Transportation Committee, said he would like to see action on changing the law take place within this session. While he acknowledged that this may not be possible, both Carroll and Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township, said they will begin looking for opportunities for introducing such changes as soon as possible.
Toohil suggested such a conversation with legislative colleagues should begin as early as Monday, when lawmakers return to Harrisburg.
“It is hard to get bills passed at the last minute, but I think the story of Kevin Miller and his family is one that needs to be told,” said Toohil, who attended Thursday's sentencing.
Baker agreed.
“The tragic circumstances of young Kevin Miller and his family make a compelling case for change,” the senator said. “Offenders should not get a break under the law because of their irresponsible and callous actions.”
But the change they and others seek could prove an uphill battle, as supporters of “Sean's Law” learned years ago.
Working with Pearce's family and other relatives of hit-and-run victims, Reed introduced legislation to close the loophole in four consecutive sessions, starting in 2005, the same year Pearce was killed. Those bills were not enacted and expired.
Then came House Bill 208. After several years of work, it was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in July 2012. But it also did not give advocates all that they were seeking. House Bill 208 increased the penalty for a fatal hit-and-run accident from a third-degree to a second-degree felony. The maximum range went up. The minimum range did not.
Many blamed politics for what happened to the bill by the time “Sean's Law” reached Corbett's desk.
The bill was stripped of the mandatory minimum provision, Toohil said.
“There are a lot of legislators who do not believe there should be mandatory minimums,” she said. “They look at prison costs, having more prisoners, longer sentences and they want to leave that discretion with the judges.”
That, she and other feel, continued to send the wrong message.
“You want people to stay at the scene,” Toohil said.
Timing the fight
If Letteer's sentencing prompts a renewed fight, his long case also held that fight in abeyance for a time.
Salavantis said she has been talking with the legislators for months, but publicly tying the fight for change to Kevin's story had to wait until the case was resolved, due to a gag order issued by the judge.
With a stone-faced Letteer in handcuffs and on his way to prison Thursday afternoon, Salavantis gathered with Kevin's family under the Luzerne County Courthouse rotunda to discuss the sentencing, and to press their case for a change in the law.
Kevin's mother, Caroline Miller, who gave a lengthy, emotional address to the court before Letteer heard his fate, told reporters afterward that she would make the realization of “Kevin's Law” her life's work.
“I will fight the hardest I ever have in my life to make this legislation a reality,” said Miller, wearing a yellow dress in memory of her son's favorite color.
“I do this first and foremost for my precious Kevin. And I also do this so that any mother, and any family, will never have to live in the Hell that I and my family will live in for the rest of our lives.”



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