WILKES-BARRE — “I just panicked.”
Megan Panowicz’s words were heard in Luzerne County Court on Tuesday afternoon, admitting she left the scene of a 2008 pedestrian death on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston.
Those words came not out of the defendant’s mouth Tuesday, but from a retired detective, who read from written statement Panowicz gave to investigators the morning after Sharon Shaughnessy died after being struck by three vehicles, the first of which Panowicz has admitted to driving.
“I know how incredibly terrible it was for me not to stay at the scene, and I just panicked,” Panowicz wrote, according to the document read aloud Tuesday by former Kingston police Detective Capt. John Jorda.
Testimony began Tuesday morning in the bench trial against Panowicz, 29, who is charged with a felony count of leaving the scene of an accident in the death of Shaughnessy, 32, at about 10:30 p.m. on the night of Aug. 27, 2008.
The charge against her carries a mandatory one-year minimum sentence.
Whether Panowicz committed a crime will be for specially presiding Centre County Senior Judge Charles Brown to preside.
The defendant herself is expected to take the stand today.
‘No aid was possible’
The defense strategy advanced by Panowicz’s lawyers — led by her father, attorney Robert Panowicz — suggested the chain of events was so fast, and so traumatizing, that Panowicz fled in shock at the sight, adding that she would have been unable to aid the dead woman in any case.
Megan Panowicz went to the police station to report her involvement more than 11 hours later.
“I submit to the court that no aid was possible to be given,” Robert Panowicz pointed out during his 14-minute opening statement.
And, the attorney pointed out, Shaughnessy was both outside of the crosswalk that summer night and had crossed against the traffic signals.
According to Deputy Attorney General Clarke Madden, prosecuting, Shaughnessy was “mentally challenged but high functioning,” and walking home from her job at the concession stand of a downtown movie theater that summer night.
“Let me tell you how Sharon Shaughnessy died,” Madden said in his five-minute opening statement.
“This is that rarest of cases in which our burden is reasonable doubt, but there is no doubt … it is breathtakingly simple,” Madden said.
“That the defendant is required to remain in every event at the scene … she did not do that and she cannot dispute that,” Madden continued, saying Panowicz “told a roomful of police officers” that she went home that night without calling 911.
He called the trial a case of “standing up for rules that require us to help each other.”
The defense maintains Panowicz did help the police by sharing her story the following morning, thereby putting to an end a police search for a male driver after witnesses reported seeing a man behind the wheel of the first vehicle, which Panowicz admitted driving.
‘Now she panics’
Julianne Fisher of Kingston, mother of Panowicz’s boyfriend, testified Tuesday about the hours before the incident.
Fisher said Panowicz had spent the evening at their home, about six blocks from the accident scene. Fisher said Panowicz had been watching baseball games on television with the family and had only orange juice and water to drink before heading home to Forty Fort.
Police said Panowicz admitted looking down briefly to change the radio station, while passing through a green light, then looked up to see Shaughnessy directly in front of her.
Police determined that Megan Panowicz was driving about 29 mph and attempted to brake and steer away from Shaughnessy, but “unfortunately, neither was enough,” Robert Panowicz said.
Police said Shaughnessy bounced off the 2004 Honda CRV driven by Panowicz and into the roadway.
Robert Panowicz told the court that his daughter intended to call 911 after striking Shaughnessy. Instead, he said, she left the scene in a state of shock after seeing Shaughnessy’s body torn apart as it was struck by two other cars: Swoyersville resident Rosemary Chismar was the second driver, followed by Kingston resident Linda Giordano.
Both of those women testified Tuesday.
Chismar, 66, who stopped and gave a report to police, never was charged.
Giordano, 68, drove away claiming she thought she had run over a rolled up carpet, and initially faced the same charge as Panowicz. Giordano reached a deal with prosecutors last year, averting a felony charge and pleading guilty to summary traffic offenses.
“She sees that horrific, horrible event … this drama taking place in front of her, and she’s horrified when she sees that,” Robert Panowicz said of his daughter.
“She stopped to do what she was supposed to do. But for those two other accidents, she would not have left that scene,” he said.
“Now she panics, and gets in her car and leaves, and drives home,” he added. “She takes pills to try to get to sleep. She will testify that when she wakes up, she thought it was some kind of nightmare.”
The attorney went on to tell the court that Megan Panowicz broke down in hysteria the next morning at the family law office, and did cooperate fully with police shortly afterward when her parents took her to the police station, 11 and a half hours after the incident.
Chismar testified about believing she had hit a blanket, until pulling over and seeing a head sticking out of the cloth. Before she could reach the body, Chismar said she saw another vehicle run over the body.
A veteran nurse, Chismar described how blood and tissue came up from the tires when Shaughnessy was struck by that third vehicle.
Danielle Kishbaugh, a woman who lived in a Wyoming Avenue apartment building overlooking the accident scene, testified to hearing what was the second impact, went to her window and then saw the third impact.
“I screamed, my boyfriend tried to pull me away from the window,” Kishbaugh said, describing how the third car briefly went airborne and came back down hard. She said she believed her boyfriend called 911 before they ran outside.
That third driver, Giordano, said she was returning from a day of hiking at Frances Slocum State Park in Kingston Township. Giordano testified she looked in the rear-view mirror, thought she had run over a roll of carpet and kept going. She thought the flashing lights she saw in her mirror were tow trucks, she added.
Prosecutor Madden asked Giordano if she would have stopped and tried to render aid had she realized what she had hit.
“Oh my God, yes,” Giordano replied.
In addition to several police officers, the judge on Tuesday also heard from Luzerne County Coroner William Lisman, who was deputy coroner at the time of the incident.
Lisman said Shaughnessy already had been pronounced dead at the scene by another deputy coroner by the time he arrived.
Lisman described identifying Shaughnessy after speaking with someone from the nearby personal care home where she lived, who reported that one of their residents was late getting home. Lisman was then able to identify Shaughnessy based on photographs provided to him.
Under questioning, Lisman noted the ruling on Shaughnessy’s death was that it was caused by multiple traumatic injuries due to blunt force trauma, after the pedestrian was struck by motor vehicles — stressing that the last word was plural.
The trial is scheduled to continue today at 9.