Driver sentenced for hitting bicyclist

Ernest Tharpe

A Strasburg man pleaded guilty Wednesday to striking a bicyclist while driving under the influence in 2016.

Ernest Linwood Tharpe III appeared in Shenandoah County Circuit Court where he entered an Alford plea of guilt to the charge of driving while intoxicated and maiming another individual. A defendant who enters an Alford plea maintains his or her innocence while acknowledging the evidence could result in a finding of guilt.

Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. accepted Tharpe’s plea and sentenced the defendant to five years in prison with all but six months suspended, court records show. Athey ordered Tharpe to serve two years of supervised probation and his driver’s license suspended for an indefinite period of time.

In exchange for his plea, the court dismissed at the request of the commonwealth Tharpe’s remaining charges of a second offense of drinking while intoxicated and drinking from an open container while driving.

Authorities accused Tharpe, 35, of Strasburg, of driving under the influence of alcohol when his SUV struck Ray Swinson on Nov. 9, 2016 while traveling on U.S. 11. Swinson, 25, suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of the incident that required surgery and extended hospital stay.

Virginia law states that anyone who, as a result of driving while intoxicated in so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life, unintentionally causes serious bodily injury of another person resulting in permanent and significant physical impairment shall be guilty of a Class 6 felony. The statute also calls for the court to revoke the person’s driver’s license.

Athey heard the case Wednesday because Judge Dennis L. Hupp had rejected an earlier plea agreement reached by the commonwealth and Tharpe’s attorney, Franklin Edwards. Hupp rejected the agreement at a hearing in early November given the circumstances of the case because he felt prosecutors had enough evidence to convict Tharpe. Hupp also thought a jury should hear the case.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Kristen Zalenski said at the time that evidence showed Tharpe’s blood alcohol level, not tested until more than an hour after the incident, measured at 0.06. State law considers a level of 0.08 as intoxicated. Tharpe performed poorly on, but completed the field sobriety tests, Zalenski said. Tharpe’s attorney said his client did not want to risk facing the charges at trial.