SANTA ROSA – The driver accused of causing an accident that claimed the life of a toddler will spend no more than one year a jail, based on charges filed against her.
Kaitlyn Dunaway, 18, has been charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly running over 2-year-old Calli Murray, who was holding hands with her mother in a crosswalk as they left a playground in Rohnert Park on Dec. 1, 2010. The child was killed, and her mother, Ling Murray, underwent multiple surgeries for injuries that included major bone fractures and remained unconscious for five days following the accident.
Some press reports indicated that Dunaway told police she was texting at the moment of impact. Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who is handling the case, has charged the young driver with vehicular manslaughter, an offense that can be considered a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances surrounding the event.
A press release from the district attorney’s office accused Dunaway of “driving while texting on her cell phone, driving at an unsafe speed for the conditions and failing to yield right-of-way to pedestrians in a crosswalk.” These distinct violations are all considered part of a single misdemeanor offense.
In a press release, Ravitch said: “Without regard to the facts or outcome of this case, it bears repeating that driving while texting is a dangerous and real threat.” Though Ravitch stated that the young driver should enjoy the presumption of innocence, most of the release was devoted to emphasizing the danger of texting from behind the wheel.
The tragic incident has provoked debate about whether a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum one-year sentence, is sufficient punishment given the devastating consequences of a young driver’s negligent behavior.
Through public meetings, media interviews and online comments, some community members have expressed outrage at the fact that Dunaway faces what they consider to be too short of a jail term.
Dunaway was arraigned May 19, but declined to enter a plea. Local media quoted her lawyer as saying that his client intends to “admit responsibility” for the death of Callie Murray. The parents of the victim have publicly expressed support for DA Ravitch’s decision to seek a misdemeanor conviction, accepting the view that the crime could not be successfully prosecuted as a felony under current law.
Orange County parallel
Elsewhere in California, there have been other deadly incidents related to texting and driving, but unlike Kaitlyn Dunaway, some offenders face felony charges.
Felony vehicular manslaughter can result in a decade-long stint in state prison, unlike the misdemeanor equivalent, which carries a maximum of a single year in county jail. One particularly well-documented example, a fatal collision that took place in Orange County, bears strong similarities with the accident that snuffed out the life of Callie Murray.
In August 2008, Martin Burt Kuehl was driving his SUV in the town of Newport Beach and fatally struck a pedestrian while she was in a crosswalk. Kuehl had been sending text messages prior to the accident, and did not slow down despite having a clear view of the crosswalk for nearly 300 feet before his vehicle smashed into the victim. A jury convicted him of “one felony count of vehicular manslaughter by unlawful act with gross negligence.” A judge ordered Kuehl, who had prior convictions for burglary and unsafe driving, to serve four years of a maximum nine-year sentence.
On the surface, the accident in Orange County bears a striking resemblance to the crash caused by Ms. Dunaway, in both the cause and the effect of the perpetrators’ distracted driving.
In each of the two cases, the victims were in a crosswalk, and the driver was considered to be exceeding a safe speed for the conditions. When asked to comment on the apparent parallels, Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, said: “What may seem similar may not be similar when all the facts come out” in reference to the Dunaway case.
Schroeder summed up by saying “we charge cases in accordance with the law,” arguing that statutes clearly dictate whether an instance of vehicular manslaughter constitutes a felony or misdemeanor.
In California, the determination is based on whether the driver is guilty of “ordinary negligence,” which results in a misdemeanor, or “gross negligence,” which is required for a felony conviction.
As the term implies, an act of ordinary negligence is a common occurrence, an error that an average, conscientious person could make while being inattentive or distracted.
In an email, chief of staff Schroeder contrasted gross negligence as an “action so different from how an ordinary careful person would act in the same situation that his or her act amounts to disregard for human life.”
Many factors can influence what category of negligence a crime falls into, including whether or not the driver was intoxicated.
In another Orange County texting-and-driving case, dating from 2007, a young driver high on prescription drugs swerved into a teenaged cyclist, who sustained massive trauma and died. The driver, Jeffrey Woods, 21, had been sending messages within a minute before the impact, and was found guilty of felony vehicular manslaughter. Despite having no criminal record, the judge who passed sentence excoriated Woods for having a “careless attitude towards life,” and sent him to prison for six years.
Clear legal standards
More recently, a young woman has been charged with felony vehicular manslaughter in connection with the death of an elderly pedestrian in Glendale, a city adjacent to Los Angeles.
A press release from the Glendale Police Department stated that the driver, Ani Voskanian, 20, ignored a stop sign while texting on her cell phone. Her vehicle rammed into 80-year-old Misak Ranjibar, who was crossing the street, causing injuries that took his life.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is seeking a felony conviction, and if they are successful, Voskanian may spend the next decade behind bars. Her sentence could be 10 times as long as the 12-month maximum faced by Kaitlyn Dunaway, the driver accused of causing the death of Callie Murray.
Asked to comment on why cases that appear similar have such differing outcomes, a spokesperson for the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office said only that the decision to charge Dunaway with a misdemeanor is based on clear legal standards.
Under a California law passed in 2009, drivers can be cited for sending a text message while driving, but a first offense results in a fine of just $20. A study conducted by the American Automobile Association indicated that texting-and-driving is on the rise in the state, after an initial drop that followed the passage of the texting ban.