SNOW HILL – Following an emotional trial in Snow Hill on Wednesday, a Worcester County Circuit Court judge struck a compromise of sorts, sentencing the man accused of striking and killing a local teen on Route 50 in West Ocean City last May to six months in jail.
“What if?” was a question raised often during the proceedings in Circuit Court on Wednesday as Judge Theodore Eschenberg, along with State’s Attorney Joel Todd, defense attorney Skip Townsend, the victim’s family and friends and even the defendant wondered aloud if the tragedy could have been avoided if Luis A. Rodriguez, 29, of Massapequa Park, N.Y., had not decided to get behind the wheel and drive after consuming several beers while playing golf earlier in the day.
The final accident report listed pedestrian error as the cause of the crash because he “ran into the side of the defendant’s vehicle” while attempting to cross Route 50 near the western end of the Harry Kelley Memorial Bridge, but there is no dismissing the fact Rodriguez was legally intoxicated at the time of the collision and might have avoided the victim, Matthew B. Barcase, 16, of Berlin, if he had not been drinking and driving.
“What would have happened if you hadn’t been drinking?” the judge asked Rodriguez on Wednesday. “You had more than four beers in my judgment. The victim did run into the side of the car and we can’t overlook the fact he made a mistake, but you made a mistake, too. You got behind the wheel at .10. It makes me wonder. If other people saw him, would you have seen him if you hadn’t been drinking? We’ll never know.”
Rodriguez pleaded guilty to driving under the influence per se in a pre-arranged plea agreement prior to Wednesday’s trial. The charge carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Given the facts of the case, Eschenberg, after hearing gripping testimony from both sides, sentenced Rodriguez to six months in jail. The sentence was a bit of a departure for the judge, who rarely metes out jail time for first offenders, but under the circumstances, Eschenberg was compelled to put the defendant behind bars. Todd acknowledged the judge’s informal policy, but urged Eschenberg to break his tradition given the circumstances of the case.
“I know your practice is not to incarcerate first offenders,” he said. “Even though this is a first offense, you need to factor in the fact a young person lost his life.”
After careful consideration, the judge agreed, sentencing Rodriguez to six months in jail, or exactly half of the maximum allowed under state law.
“I can’t treat this as a first offense. Considering what the family wants, what the state wants, what the facts of the case suggest, I’m sentencing you to six months in the Worcester County Jail,” Eschenberg told the defendant. “No matter what sentence I give you, it’s not going to bring that young man back.”
Shortly before 8 p.m. on May 16, Barcase, with a group of five friends, was attempting to cross Route 50 just east of Inlet Isle Lane in West Ocean City when the 2008 Jeep Wrangler driven by Rodriguez struck him. Barcase and a group of friends had just left the nearby Outback Steakhouse where they were celebrating a birthday and were walking over to Ocean City.
According to the statement of charges, the group of teens walked east on the north side of Route 50 until they reached the Harry Kelley Memorial Bridge, which was in the midst of a major rehabilitation project. A sign at the western terminus of the bridge advised the sidewalk on the north side of the span was closed and instructed pedestrians to cross the highway and continue across to the sidewalk on the south side of the bridge.
The group of teens, with Barcase in front, crossed Route 50 as instructed by the sign and attempted to stop in the median, according to Todd. Barcase stepped from the median into the inside eastbound lane of Route 50 and into the path of the Jeep, hitting it in the front quarter panel. He was transported to AGH and was pronounced dead a short time later.
Todd dismissed any notion the group of teens was crossing the highway in the wrong place.
“A group of friends were celebrating a birthday at Outback and left on foot, walking, as they should, on eastbound Route 50 facing traffic,” he said. “Route 50 was under construction and the sidewalk at one point was completely destroyed. A sign instructed them where to cross and they crossed exactly where the state of Maryland told them to cross.”
Likely contributing to the already dangerous pedestrian crossing situation was the existence of several crepe myrtle bushes in the median near the point of impact. According to Todd, the bushes in the median prevented Barcase and his friends from clearly seeing westbound traffic on Route 50 and likely prevented Rodriguez from seeing the group of teens attempting to cross.
However, one witness who was driving eastbound on Route 50 at the time did testify she heard the group of teens shouting and running across the highway before the collision, lending credence to the theory Rodriguez might have seen and heard the group if he had not been legally intoxicated at the time. According to the facts of the case, Rodriguez testified to having four beers while playing a round of golf earlier in the afternoon.
When Maryland State Police troopers first made contact with Rodriguez, they detected a strong odor of alcohol on him. After field sobriety tests, he was placed under arrest on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. He was later given a breath-alcohol test, which registered .10. Todd said he did present the facts of the case to the grand jury to determine if other charges were warranted, but the grand jury did not indict Rodriguez for vehicular homicide. Incidentally, as a matter of standard protocol, the victim was tested for the presence of alcohol or drugs during the autopsy. The results were negative in both cases.
During the trial on Wednesday, one side of the courtroom was filled with the victim’s family and friends, who sobbed during the proceedings. When it was her turn to testify, the victim’s mother, Cindy Barcase Wittmyer, attempted to paint a picture of her late son.
“As I stand before you, I can’t adequately express how we feel about Matthew,” she said. “He was a loving, happy, respectful child who always had a smile on his face. He was the type of kid who always held the door for you and said please and thank you.”
Barcase-Wittmyer said she and her husband Mark, along with their other son John and countless family members and friends, continue to struggle with the tragedy.
“We’re never going to see him graduate,” she said. “We’re never going to see him get married and never again hug him, touch him or hear his kind words. Not one minute of my day is not consumed with grief over this loss. What we’re left with is a daily, sometimes hourly struggle I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”
Given the circumstances of the tragedy, Barcase-Wittmyer urged the judge to consider the maximum sentence.
“He chose to blatantly disregard the consequences and got behind the wheel after drinking alcohol,” she said. “We ask you to sentence him to the maximum 12 months in jail.”
Throughout the proceedings, Rodriguez appeared stoic at the defense table, although he was clearly emotional when it came time to testify on his own behalf. He was visibly shaken as he told the judge he understood the family’s grief because he has a younger brother of his own.
“I have a younger brother as well,” he said. “I no longer have a fiancé. My life has been greatly changed by this.”
For his part, Townsend said it would be presumptuous at best for him to say he understood how the victim’s family felt. He said his client was torn over the circumstances of the case.
“The State Police assigned pedestrian error as the cause of the accident and that is not disputed,” he said. “The grand jury did not indict for vehicular homicide. He [Rodriguez] feels caught between two forces. He does feel genuine feelings for the family. Half of him feels responsible, but half knows he legally is not.”
In the end, Eschenberg sentenced Rodriguez to six months in jail, or half of the maximum allowed by law.
“It seems like this happens every year and it’s never, ever, ever easy,” he said. “This case is even more difficult. I’m sentencing the defendant to six months in jail. That’s not to lower the value of your son’s life, but we have to be fair.”