News 12 at 6 o'clock / Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Thomas Woodruff Jr. (Image: Woodruff Law Offices / Background: MGN Online)
AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- Maria Saxon is still struggling.
"It still hurts. It's going to be a long process. I know this. It's just tragic," says the sister of Lukisha Nicole Thomas.
On Saturday, March 30, Thomas, her son and Ray Charles Wooden Jr. were walking on the sidewalk near the corner of York Street and Eastern Place when a driver jumped the curb and hit both Thomas and Wooden.
Thomas, 29, died while in surgery from multiple body traumas that same day.
Wooden was injured in the accident and was in critical condition until doctors updated his status to a stable condition. He was recently released from the hospital, but he is still undergoing copious amounts of physical therapy.
The driver, Aiken attorney Tom Woodruff, was charged with careless driving, and he reportedly only paid a $155 dollar fine.
"It's very hurting to me and my family to see that my sister's life was only worth $155 fine,” Saxon said. “That's what it's saying to me, and it's not right."
The dispute over the charge isn't new.
In a heated NAACP meeting in April, citizens called for charges like manslaughter, vehicular homicide, even murder.
A week later, the Aiken County Solicitor's Office, along with the city solicitor and Aiken Public Safety, determined only careless driving was the proper charge.
The careless driving ordinance reads, "it shall be unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle in a careless manner in disregard of the safety of persons or property upon any street, sidewalk, alley or parking area, public or private, within the corporate limits of the city."
By law, for reckless vehicular homicide, there has to be "a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons," which he says wasn't there. For involuntary manslaughter, criminal negligence is needed, which Lt. Karl Odenthal with the Aiken Department of Public Safety, in a previous interview, says was also absent.
Additionally, he says Woodruff was only going 41 in a 40 mile per hour zone, he says his cellphone was searched, but nothing was found, and when it comes to DUI, there was no indication that Woodruff was intoxicated by either drugs or alcohol.
"I was there as well, and I'm advanced DUI certified," said Odenthal in April, adding two more like himself were there. "The other two members of the reconstruction team are actually instructors for advanced DUI detection. No one observed any impairment at all."
By state law, a BAC Datamaster Breathalyzer test can't be administered unless Woodruff was formally arrested for DUI. However, a law that took effect in December 2012 states a roadside sobriety test is mandatory in a careless driving incident where a fatality results. However, Thomas was not pronounced dead until several hours after the incident.
But Odenthal told News 12 in April that a tearful Woodruff was eager to get his own blood test done only a couple hours later at a doctor's office to dispel rumors that he knew were coming. According to Odenthal, the results were all zeros or negative numbers.
But the family still isn't satisfied. They recently published a several minute video to YouTube. Click here to watch the video.
It points out some of the discrepancies that the narrator says aren't adding up, such as the medical report that says Thomas was struck by a vehicle traveling more than 50 miles per hour. As aforementioned, Aiken Public Safety says Woodruff was only going 41 in a 40.
"And we still believe that it wasn't the correct charge to be given," Saxon. said.
In the video, the narrator says the family asked the State Law Enforcement Division to review Aiken Public Safety’s case. The video says SLED found that nothing was out of the ordinary, but Saxon says she's not done.
"We want to make sure people know that my sister was a person. She was a human being,” she said. “We're not finished."
Saxon is also confused about why Aiken Public Safety originally labeled the case reckless driving on an incident report before downgrading to the lesser charge of careless driving.
News 12 called Public Safety but didn’t hear back before press time.
However, Thomas and others point to what they say is the biggest problem: South Carolina’s law as it pertains to vehicular fatalities.
News 12 will have more coverage on Thursday about Thomas’ fight to change the law.