There are a host of reasons not to pursue criminal charges against a former Cabell County sheriff’s deputy who, while in his cruiser, fatally struck a teenage pedestrian in Huntington late last year.
Indeed, Putnam County Prosecutor Mark Sorsaia rattled off those reasons when he announced Thursday he wouldn’t prosecute Jeffery Racer, who was off duty the evening of Dec. 30 when his cruiser hit 13-year-old Jacqueline “Laney” Hudson around the intersection of 31st St. and Fifth Ave.
Racer was sober. He called 911 as soon as the accident occurred. Hudson apparently was recklessly running around the street with a group of friends. Sorsaia said toxicology reports show she had alcohol and marijuana laced with a synthetic hallucinogen in her system. Video from the teen’s phone, Sorsaia said, showed she and a group of friends were boasting about how drunk or high they were. It was Hudson who was being negligent, and Racer couldn’t stop his cruiser in time.
Those seem like reasonable mitigating factors for calling the whole thing a tragic accident and wiping one’s hands of it. And yet, the decision doesn’t seem quite right.
There are at least two reasons, aside from the tint of victim-blaming, that Sorsaia’s decision feels off. The primary factor is that Racer was estimated to be traveling anywhere from 12 to 20 miles per hour over the speed limit when the accident occurred. It’s a 35 mph zone, and an analysis of skid marks left by Racer’s cruiser and the position of Hudson’s body indicated to a West Virginia State Police trooper that Racer was driving somewhere between 47 and 55 mph. Accident reconstruction isn’t an exact science, which is why a range of speeds is listed. But if Racer was going that fast in a 35 mph zone, it’s no wonder he couldn’t stop in time.
Tugging at that thread, things start to get murky.
The “black box” in Racer’s cruiser that could provide more accurate information about the accident supposedly gave “inconclusive” information, according to officials, because it’s old.
A State Police traffic analysis on Feb. 1 of the area where the accident occurred showed vehicles going anywhere from the speed limit of 35 mph up to a blazing 75 mph. The average speed, according to the survey, was around 49 mph.
Sorsaia said that shows Racer was driving at a speed common for most motorists in the area. Try using that one the next time you get pulled over for speeding and see how far it gets you.
In fairness, Sorsaia acknowledged that doesn’t excuse speeding in the area, but he then made the tenuous leap that it shows Racer wasn’t driving in a way that would be considered a reckless disregard for the safety of others, a standard that must be satisfied to bring a negligent-homicide charge. Sorsaia also said he believes he’d have a hard time proving the off-duty deputy was actually speeding.
That could very well be true, but, unfortunately, it bleeds into the secondary problem here, which is one of public perception. An off-duty police officer with a woman in his cruiser (Racer said he was on his way to his girlfriend’s house and would need the cruiser for work in the morning) was likely driving well above the speed limit and accidentally struck and killed a pedestrian, and that’s it. No charges. No sweeping reforms.
Toss another case on the pile in a state riddled with investigations of abuse of power in law enforcement that often go nowhere.
Look, Sorsaia did have a lot of factors against him in building a successful case here. We’re not accusing him of running cover for anyone. But who can blame the many people who see this as another example of those who hold everyone else accountable under the law being above it?
Deserved or not, that’s a perception that will stick with this case, and others like it, until the basis behind it improves.