HARRISBURG — Kevin Miller’s short life ended in tragedy on a snowy night in 2012.
The battle to ensure the 5-year-old hit-and-run victim did not die in vain ended in triumph Monday evening with the stroke of Gov. Tom Corbett’s pen.
“I can’t tell you how much I looked forward to doing this,” Pennsylvania’s chief executive — a former prosecutor — said, acknowledging his joy was tempered by sadness over Kevin’s death.
Formally Senate Bill 1312 — a transportation measure covering several different highway-related issues — the provision increasing the minimum penalty for leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run crash from one to three years has been dubbed “Kevin’s Law” by backers, in memory of the Dallas boy.
Thomas W. Letteer Jr., 24, pleaded guilty earlier this year to leaving the scene of the Dec. 21, 2012, crash that killed Kevin as the boy and his family were leaving a Christmas party. Letteer was ordered to spend two to five years in prison when he appeared before Luzerne County Judge Joseph Sklarosky Jr. on May 1. He is appealing the sentence.
By a vote of 49-1, legislation to close Pennsylvania’s hit-and-run “loophole” — under which leaving the scene of a fatal crash carried a lesser minimum sentence than a DUI homicide — passed the state Senate on Monday afternoon, as members of the Dallas boy’s family and their supporters cheered from the gallery high above the Senate floor.
Barely two hours later, Corbett sat surrounded by a sea of those same supporters’ yellow t-shirts as he took the rare step of signing the measure into law the same day it was passed — doubly unprecedented, perhaps, given that he and lawmakers were in the midst of frenetic last-minute work on the state’s next budget.
“I think it’s important that we adjust our laws as we go forward, so that people take responsibility for their actions,” Corbett said.
The law takes effect in 60 days.
“Today is bittersweet for myself, for my family, and for all families in Pennsylvania that have had loved ones hit and killed by hit-and-run drivers,” Kevin’s mother, Caroline Miller, said during a statement to supporters and media after the Senate vote.
“For me, the harsh reality is that my Kevin is not coming back. That is something I live with every minute of every day, and I will for the rest of my life,” she said.
Catalyst for change
While Kevin Miller’s death was not the only local case fuelling the desire for change, the issue took on renewed prominence after Letteer’s sentencing in May, when Miller’s family joined prosecutors and lawmakers — including state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, state Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township, and state Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca — at a press conference calling on state legislators to change the law. All were on hand Monday, together with state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township.
The change was the work of many legislators’ hands, although Carroll, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, successfully worked to get the language added to SB 1312.
Caroline Miller on Monday recalled the family’s frustration in the early days of the investigation.
“Two days later, we were told by law enforcement that if they found the person who killed Kevin, because he had fled the scene, and a blood alcohol level was unable to be obtained, he would only be sentenced to one year in prison, if convicted, according to Pennsylvania law,” Miller said.
“This made me physically sick. How could a person violently and horrifically kill my son, with their vehicle, and flee the scene, and only spend one year in prison?” she asked.
“I am proud to say that today, Kevin’s Law changes that flawed law in Pennsylvania,” Miller added, choking back tears.
Baker, in her remarks before Monday’s vote, urged her fellow senators to put an end to what she called “a notorious flaw in state law” that has added to the suffering of families grieving the violent loss of a loved one.
Baker, herself teary-eyed at many moments Monday afternoon, declined further comment after the vote, but accepted one of the supporters’ yellow T-shirts — in Kevin’s favorite color and bearing a drawing he once made for his mother — as Miller praised Baker’s legislative support and “class.”
Baker did, however, echo a remark by Caroline Miller when a reporter asked her about the swiftness with which Corbett signed the bill.
“The stars were aligned, and hopefully Kevin’s star is shining down upon us,” Baker said after the signing ceremony.
Not all on Monday were as enthusiastic.
The lone vote against the bill came from Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Bucks/Montgomery, who reminded the chamber that no change of law would bring back Kevin or any victim, and that he feels sentencing decisions are best left in the hands of judges, not politicians.
A host of supporters
His was a voice apart on Monday.
More than 60 people, dubbing themselves “Kevin’s Army,” packed into a chartered bus and several cars that traveled from Wilkes-Barre to Harrisburg for the vote.
The group, which included Kevin’s brothers, Christopher and Stephen, as well as many young children, spent an afternoon mostly exploring the Capitol complex as they waited for a senatorial recess to end.
Among those who also drove down were county District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis and several attorneys who worked on the case against Letteer: First Assistant DA Sam Sanguedolce, ADA Mamie Phillips and former ADA Alexis Falvello.
“It’s obviously a monumental change in the law that we truly hope discourages people from fleeing the scene of an accident, whether they are under the influence of alcohol or not,” Sanguedolce said.
“It’s bittersweet. Nothing will bring back Kevin,” Salavantis said. “But at least this law will help other families of victims like Kevin, and help us when we’re fighting for them.”
“It’s just a wonderful thing,” Salavantis added.