Judge Yoder is right to raise questions after deadly DUI

Circuit Court Judge John Yoder is correct to question a plea agreement that would mean a maximum jail sentence of just 18 months for habitual drunk driver David McDaniel, who was in court late last week after a fatal truck crash.

None of the facts are in dispute: the 49-year-old Inwood man was behind the wheel around 3:20 a.m. the morning after Mother’s Day last year, when his Ford F-150 left Arden-Nollville Road, careened into a ditch and overturned.

McDaniel’s friend and passenger, 46-year-old Harry Lee Franks Jr., died at the scene.

At the time of the crash, McDaniel had no driver’s license; it had been revoked for Driving Under the Influence.

After the crash, McDaniel’s blood-alcohol concentration tested at an astonishing .336 percent, more than four times West Virginia’s legal limit.

Police accounts say empty beer cans were found in and around the wrecked truck, along with an empty 12-pack of beer just outside the vehicle.

According to officers, McDaniel explained on the scene that he and Franks had come from a bar on Winchester Avenue in Inwood and that before he’d gotten into the driver’s seat he’d downed both whiskey and several beers.

He also told officers he couldn’t recall any events that led to the crash, police accounts show.

Yet Berkeley County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Timothy Helman on Thursday came before the court to insist that just 18 months in jail – one year on a misdemeanor DUI resulting in death charge and six months for the charge of driving on a revoked license for DUI – would be as much protection against McDaniel’s recklessness as the public could expect.

Although Helman assured Yoder that the state is “very concerned about protecting the public from drunk drivers,” his office has opted not to push for a tougher punishment for McDaniel, saying it’s uncertain whether a jury would agree that McDaniel’s acts amounted to a felony – that he acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others.

While measurements and photos were taken of the crash scene, no reconstructionist was employed to determined just what happened, Helman told Yoder. Speeding or swerving may be used as evidence to show reckless disregard, Helman said, but this was a single-vehicle crash, with no witnesses.

Ah, but Mr. Helman, there were two witnesses to the crash: McDaniel, whose inability to recall his actions before the accident in fact is a damning bit of evidence; and then Franks, his victim, who left behind his parents, his three younger sisters, his two daughters, his two grandchildren and many friends.

The county’s reluctance to label McDaniel’s acts in those predawn hours as “reckless disregard” shows a reckless disregard for the public’s safety. It’s clear that McDaniel represents a threat and ought to be punished in the harshest possible manner.

At the hearing, Yoder not only questioned the plea agreement – prompting McDaniel’s lawyer to ask for a continuance – and also ordered McDaniel to begin attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, a move we applaud.

We believe that Yoder knows well that this 18-month plea agreement would be an utter travesty and in no way sufficient protection for the public. It is our hope that when the matter comes before the judge again on Sept. 13, he’ll insist on a tougher sentence – one that will mean justice in last year’s fatal crash and a surety that McDaniel won’t be back on the road anytime soon.

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