Judge: No indication man had a role in December wreck
By Alex Bridges -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK -- An Edinburg man did not incite a race with a teen driver who crashed and killed a fellow high school student in December 2010, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Sean Michael Ratcliffe, 20, of 2756 Ridge Hollow Road, appeared in Shenandoah County General District Court to stand trial on a misdemeanor charge of reckless driving.
Winchester attorney William A. "Beau" Bassler represented Ratcliffe, who pleaded not guilty to the charge.
After more than two hours of testimony, Judge Amy Tisinger granted a defense motion to strike the evidence put on by Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Ryan King, effectively finding Ratcliffe not guilty of the charge.
Tisinger noted the tragic nature of the case but also the difficulty in making a decision based on the facts presented in court.
"There's nothing the court can do to put people back where they were on Dec. 29, 2010," Tisiner said.
Authorities had accused Ratcliffe of driving a silver Toyota Scion recklessly while heading south on U.S. 11 just north of Woodstock the evening of Dec. 29, 2010. Ratcliffe, according to state police accounts, tried to pass a 1997 Mitsubishi Eclipse, driven by a 17-year-old boy. The Mitsubishi then crashed and the force of the collision ejected a passenger, Central High School junior Chad Allen Neff, also 17. Authorities later charged the driver of the Mitsubishi in the crash but would not reveal his identity even though by that time he had turned 18.
King called the incident the result of a "pick-up race" incited by Ratcliffe. Bassler questioned King's characterization of the case.
The driver of the Mitsubishi, Michael McDaniel, testified but admitted he remembered very little about the events leading up to the crash.
"It was fuzzy," McDaniel said when asked to recall what happened before the crash.
McDaniel explained he was driving south toward Woodstock and, as he headed up a hill, saw in the sideview mirror the headlights of a Toyota Scion. McDaniel told the court he saw the lights come for only a few seconds as if moving alongside his car toward the front.
"I turned around and that's the last thing I remember," McDaniel said.
"I remember seeing my friend laying there in the middle of the road," McDaniel later said.
Bassler questioned why McDaniel could recall details which preceded the crash but couldn't when police interviewed him shortly after the incident. McDaniel, on cross examination, admitted he couldn't remember what he told various troopers who interviewed him more than a year ago.
McDaniel testified he estimated driving 60 mph before the crash.
"I know I don't think I was speeding," McDaniel said, when questioned by Bassler.
But Trooper D.R. Gray, a crash reconstruction team investigator, testified the findings showed the vehicle likely reached "well over 90 miles per hour" before it left the road and collided with the embankment and rocks. The crash left McDaniel with a broken femur and knee as well as other broken bones and a concussion, he testified.
Trooper A.S. Waybright, the officer who first responded to the crash, testified he interviewed Ratcliffe on several occasions. Each time, Ratcliffe recalled he came up on the Mitsubishi traveling slower than his Toyota and then attempted to pass using the left lane, according to Waybright.
The trooper, reading from statements made by Ratcliffe, noted the defendant said he came up to a point diagonal with the Mitsubishi when the vehicle "took off." Ratcliffe told the trooper he fell back behind the Mitsubishi which then crashed ahead of him, Waybright testified. Ratcliffe, according to the trooper, said he later did speed up to try to pass the car and likely exceeded the speed limit but did not go that fast.
The judge on two occasions had to tell the audience not to speak during the hearing -- once when a man questioned a statement made by a testifying witness and again when a woman shouted in McDaniel's defense.