NAACP: Careless driving charge for Aiken lawyer 'unacceptable'

Thomas Woodruff Jr. (Image: Woodruff Law Offices / Background: MGN Online)

Thomas Woodruff Jr. (Image: Woodruff Law Offices / Background: MGN Online)

News 12 First at Five / Monday, April 22, 2013

AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- Philip Howell, president of the Aiken NAACP Branch, is weighing his options.

"Careless driving. I mean, that sounds like someone hit a squirrel," he said, reacting to the charge given to Tom Woodruff.

Woodruff is the attorney who's accused of driving onto a York Street sidewalk and hitting three people, killing one of them.

The Aiken Department of Public Safety says the investigation has revealed that on Saturday, March 30, Lukisha Nicole 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 trauma that same day.

Wooden was injured in the accident and was in critical condition until doctors recently updated his status to a stable condition.

In a heated NAACP meeting about a week ago, 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 that "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."

"The state conference NAACP and Dwight James are getting involved," says Howell. "We have friends at SLED, including the chief."

Lt. Karl Odenthal with Aiken Public Safety was frustrated, too.

"It's a tragic event all the way around," he said.

Odenthal had actually had friendly conversations with Thomas before the incident, but he says that's all South Carolina law would allow. He compares the feeling to that he had in 2006, when Aiken County Sheriff's Office Deputy Jason Sheppard died after being hit by an SUV in Batesburg-Leesville. The driver in that case, an elderly woman, faced no charges.

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 Odenthal 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, 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 adds 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.

He adds in other states, like Georgia, there are enhancements to the law, and suspects like Woodruff would have likely been arrested and jailed.

"Yeah, there needs to be some laws changed in South Carolina," said NAACP's Howell. "No question about that."

Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, says he plans to speak with Howell about a potential legislative fix. Odenthal says Aiken Public Safety would gladly rally behind the effort to change the law.

Woodruff could not be reached for comment, as he was practicing in Camden.

The sister of Thomas, Maria Saxon, says the family will be hosting some kind of media event on Saturday at the incident location. She says the charge does not fit the crime.

Angela Wooden, a family member of the injured Ray Charles Wooden, seemed frustrated by the charge but says she's still focused on Ray's recovery more than anything else.

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