WILKES-BARRE — Not guilty of accidents involving personal injury causing death.
That was the verdict handed down this morning by specially presiding Judge Charles Brown in the hit-and-run case against Megan Panowicz.
The ruling comes after a lightning-fast final morning of proceedings in the bench trial over Panowicz’s actions following the Aug. 27, 2008 traffic death of Sharon Shaughnessy on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston.
The two-day proceeding began yesterday morning, and wrapped up today staring at 9 a.m., after which there were five final witnesses, testimony by Panowicz’s mother, a brief appearance on the stand by Panowicz herself and then closing arguments.
In his closing, attorney Robert Panowicz — the defendant’s lawyer and father — argued that case law in Pennsylvania supports the doctrine of “substantial compliance.” Under that doctrine, he said, courts have held that defendants should not be convicted “on a technicality” of failing to render aid, noting statue language requiring “only such reasonable assistance as (defendant) must have seen was necessary.”
Attorney Panowicz has argued that after two other vehicles struck Shaughnessy while his daughter looked on, she was both in shock and no longer able to render aid to the gravely injured pedestrian, who died at the scene.
The judge did find that it was one accident — which thus started with Panowicz.
In her appearance on the stand, Panowicz this morning said she stopped after hitting Shaughnessy and intended to call 911, but panicked, and “lost the ability to determine what’s right and wrong,” then driving home in shock.
Robert Panowicz also said it is the Commonwealth’s responsibility to show that the initial crash, caused by Panowicz, was the ultimate cause of Shaughnessy’s death.
Deputy Attorney General Clarke Madden, prosecuting, refuted those arguments.
He noted that Panowicz herself admitted to sending four text message to her sister around the time of the accident — in what appeared to be before, during and after the crash — but could not bring herself to call 911.
Instead, Madden noted, Panowicz drove home to Forty Fort — “jogging distance” from the scene, he called it — and only went to the police station nearly 12 hours later at her father’s direction.
Panowicz has said she only consumed orange juice and water at her ex-boyfriend’s home before the crash.
Madden raised the spectre of alcohol in his closing, saying a victory for Panowicz would send the wrong message.
“Drunk drivers of Luzerne County take note. You will now be able to say, after hitting a pedestrian, injuring them … Come back at your leisure. You’re free to go,” Madden said.
“That can’t be the law,” he added.
Adding that Panowicz is not the victim, Madden urged the judge: “don’t abandon Sharon again.”
Madden told a reporter after trial that he could not comment. Robert Panowicz declined comment outside the courtroom, but advised a reporter to try calling him later. Megan Panovicz and other members of the family left the building without speaking to reporters.
Only Shaughnessy’s sister, Brenda Jurchak, spoke with reporters after the verdict, saying that she had gone over and hugged Panovicz.