WILKES-BARRE — The lawyers spent three days trading barbs about statute and precedent, legal obligations and the testimony of witnesses during a bench trial.
Nearly six years after Megan Panowicz — by her own admission — struck Sharon Shaughnessy of Kingston, visiting Centre County Senior Judge Charles Brown on Wednesday pronounced Panowicz not guilty of leaving the scene of Shaughnessy’s death on Aug. 27, 2008.
That verdict came after Panowicz’ own admission on the stand Wednesday that she panicked, left the scene in her Honda CRV, drove back to her family’s Forty Fort home and did not report the accident to police until nearly 12 hours later. Shaughnessy died while crossing Wyoming Avenue near Pierce Street, Kingston.
“I lost the ability to determine what’s right and what’s wrong. I just reacted,” a tearful Panowicz testified, saying she could not explain her feelings in a way that would make sense to most people.
Brown’s verdict came after just under 30 minutes of deliberation, and was delivered almost at the stroke of noon.
Hugged by family members, Panowicz, 29, cried some more. The judge rose and left the courtroom. The prosecutor conferred with the victim’s family briefly and left without comment.
After their flush of emotion had passed, Panowicz’s lawyer-father, Robert and other members of the family gathered in the Luzerne County Courthouse rotunda before walking out into the sunshine, also without comment to the media.
Only the victim’s sister stopped for a few moments in the courthouse basement to talk with reporters about the outcome, stressing healing and forgiveness.
“I’m OK with the verdict. I have made peace,” Exeter resident Brenda Jurchek said, holding Shaughnessy’s high school graduation photo as she spoke.
“It was a traumatic something to go through, and I do feel for her,” she said of Panowicz. “I actually just gave her a hug upstairs. She can move on now.”
Thus ended a case in which three drivers struck a mentally challenged woman who was trying to cross the street. Two faced a felony charge of leaving the scene, and one eventually pleaded guilty to summary traffic offenses.
Prosecutors accused Panowicz of striking Shaughnessy, then pulling over without calling police and driving away after watching two other motorists strike the woman as the pedestrian’s battered body lay on Wyoming Avenue.
That, they said, was a violation of Pennsylvania law requiring anyone involved in an accident resulting in injury or death to stop, give information to police and render aid.
The charge carries a mandatory one-year minimum sentence.
After years of wrangling and delays, jury selection for Panowicz’s trial was set to begin Monday, when both sides and the judge agreed to a bench trial before Brown. That proceeding began Tuesday morning and ended with Wednesday’s verdict.
The state Office of Attorney General prosecuted the case because Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis had worked with Panowicz’s father before taking office as DA in 2011.
Panowicz was represented by her father, along with attorneys Basil Russin and William Ruzzo.
Reached later, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office said the agency had no comment on the verdict. Efforts to reach attorney Panowicz at his office later were unsuccessful.
At trial, Robert Panowicz argued his daughter did fulfill her duty by stopping, adding that she intended to call 911, but was so shocked by the sight of Shaughnessy’s body being mangled by the other two drivers that she left the scene and drove home.
The two days of testimony included appearances by police, witnesses to the accidents, the other two motorists — Swoyersville resident Rosemary Chismar was the second driver, followed by Kingston resident Linda Giordano — as well as character witnesses and, second-to-last, the defendant’s mother, Cheryl.
Chismar stayed at the scene and never faced any charges. Giordano, who testified she thought she had run over a rolled-up carpet and kept driving, initially faced the same felony charge as Panowicz. Last year, Giordano pleaded guilty to careless driving and reckless driving.
Panowicz was the trial’s final witness. She was on the stand for about 12 minutes Wednesday, most of that time under questioning by her father.
There were two witnesses from whom the judge did not hear in person: Marc Refice and Sharon Rodney, documents stating their testimony at earlier proceedings had been stipulated to by the attorneys.
After the 10:36 p.m. crash, the two told police they believed a man wearing a T-shirt and a baseball cap had been driving the dark-colored SUV which first struck Shaughnessy. That left police agencies on both sides of the Susquehanna River looking for a male suspect for nearly half a day, until Panowicz appeared before Kingston police to say she had been driving the Honda CRV.
“It never entered my mind to get away with something,” Panowicz testified about leaving the scene. “To try and avoid anything, it was never a thought that ever came across, from the day it happened to today.”
Instead, she and her father told the judge, Panowicz recoiled at the sight of Shaughnessy’s body, nearly decapitated, and fled in panic.
Panowicz said she has been through counseling and still struggles with the crash, and trying to understand her decision to flee.
“Every day, it’s one of the hardest things I’m dealing with right now,” she testified. “I’ve asked counselors straight out, ‘Why? Why?’”
Panowicz was on the way home from visiting her then-boyfriend at his Kingston home when the crash occurred. She and members of the man’s family testified they had been watching baseball on television, and Panowicz drank only orange juice and water that night.
Unprompted by questioning, Panowicz on Wednesday attempted to qualify that statement by saying: “I know people have speculated” she may have consumed alcohol.
“I will be making the decision,” the judge interrupted. “I didn’t speculate.”
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.
Reconstruction at the scene 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, where she was struck two more times.
Madden’s cross-examination of Panowicz Wednesday lasted less than a minute. He asked her if it was true that she sent four text messages to her sister between about 10:27 p.m. and 10:34 p.m. the night of the accident, which was formally reported to police at 10:36 p.m. by others.
She confirmed sending the text messages.
“Did you remain at the scene or call police?” Madden asked Panowicz.
“No,” she replied.
“Nothing further,” Madden said.
In his closing, attorney Panowicz argued that case law in Pennsylvania supports the doctrine of “substantial compliance.” Under that doctrine, he said, courts have held that defendants should not be convicted “on a technicality” of failing to render aid, noting statute language requires “only such reasonable assistance as (defendant) must have seen was necessary.”
The courts, he said, have held it is better to promote cooperative behavior than to “convict on a technical violation.”
Attorney Panowicz has argued that after two other vehicles struck Shaughnessy while his daughter looked on, she was both in shock and no longer able to render aid to the gravely injured pedestrian, who died at the scene.
He also said it is the commonwealth’s responsibility to show that the initial crash, caused by Panowicz, was the ultimate cause of Shaughnessy’s death.
Madden reiterated at closing that Megan Panowicz admitted to sending four text message to her sister but could not bring herself to call 911, nor stop at the police station that was yards from the crash scene and on her way home.
Instead, Madden noted, Panowicz drove home to Forty Fort — “jogging distance” from the scene, he called it — and only went to the police station nearly 12 hours later, at her father’s direction.
He suggested she should not be praised or rewarded for helping police end the search for the non-existent male driver when her actions spurred that search in the first place.
“It is a self-interested act of damage control,” he said.
Echoing a statement he made on Monday — prompting Robert Panowicz to accuse him of telling a “bold-faced lie,” — Madden closed by raising the spectre of alcohol, saying a victory for Panowicz would send the wrong message: “Drunk drivers of Luzerne County, take note. You will now be able to say, after hitting a pedestrian, injuring them, murdering them, whatever you like, come back at your leisure. You’re free to go.”
“That can’t be the law in this community or this commonwealth,” Madden added.
He urged Brown not to see the question of reporting to police as a technicality or a mere matter of providing registration and insurance information.
“The more horrendous it is, the more we will want to run away. And the important thing is to stay,” Madden said. “Could she have helped? We’ll never know, because she ran away.”
He ended by stating that Panowicz is not the victim, urging the judge: “Don’t abandon Sharon again.”
The judge’s verdict was concise.
He did find that it was one accident, which thus started with Panowicz.
Brown also noted the law requires drivers to stop, and render aid.
He then made reference to the “substantial compliance” doctrine raised by Robert Panowicz.
Moments later, he declared Megan Panowicz not guilty, and departed.
A message left for Brown at his Centre County chambers, in an effort to seek more information about the legal reasoning underpinning his ruling, was not returned Wednesday afternoon.