Grand jury: traffic tickets suffice in case of dead cyclist Trish Cunningham

Morgan Cunningham, daughter of Trish Cunningham, leads cyclists to the place where her mother died (file photo). (Marvin Joseph/Washington Post)
Morgan Cunningham, daughter of Trish Cunningham, leads cyclists to the place where her mother died (file photo). (Marvin Joseph/Washington Post)

An Anne Arundel County grand jury on Friday decided that traffic tickets — and not criminal charges — were the appropriate punishment for Whitney Decesaris, the driver of a minivan who overtook a bicyclist going uphill on a narrow two-lane road and slammed into her.

“The grand jury determined that there was no probable cause to charge the driver with Criminally Negligent Manslaughter, which would have required a finding that she drove in a manner that was a gross deviation of the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise under the circumstances,” said a six-paragraph statement issued by the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s office. “As a result of the grand jury’s decision, the Anne Arundel County police will issue negligent driving and related traffic offenses to the driver by citation.”

The four traffic citations — failure to exercise caution, driving left of the center line and unsafe passing, negligent driving and failure to control speed — each carries a maximum fine of $500. Decesaris can pay the $2,000 in fines or contest the citations in court.

Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Cold Leitess, reached by telephone, refused to discuss any aspect of the case, or to explain her decision to take the matter to a grand jury rather than determine charges within her office. After the Aug. 21 accident that killed Anne Arundel County cross country coach Trish Cunningham, 50, assistant county prosecutor William Roessler said he would review the final police report and determine whether charges should be brought.

Leitess’s spokeswoman, Heather Stone, also refused to answer when asked if political pressure had been exerted on Leitess from the well-connected family of the driver. Decesaris is part of a family that developed much of Prince George’s and southern Anne Arundel counties. The Geaton and JoAnn DeCesaris Cancer Institute at the Anne Arundel Medical Center is named for members of her family.

Attempts to reach Decesaris’s lawyer were not immediately successful.

The death of Cunningham, a noted runner and mother of three, led to street corner protests in Annapolis, and Leitess said in an earlier interview that her office was flooded with letters and e-mails, most of them demanding the charges be brought and some saying cyclists should be banned from the road.

“If there were ever a case that could clear be made for [criminally negligent manslaughter], it’s this one,” said Alex Pline, a cycling advocate who met with state and county officials after the accident, and shared a video that showed the approach to the accident scene as Cunningham and Decesaris would have seen it.

“All you have to do is show a reasonable person that video going up the hill and they’d say, no, no reasonable person would attempt to pass there,” Pline said. “It’s very clear what happened.”

Cunningham had finished coaching one of the first cross-country practices of the season when she hopped on her bike and headed down Riva Road, a busy boulevard that winds south from the city before turning into a less traveled two-lane road.

As she neared the crest of a hill, Decesaris, who had come upon her from behind attempted to pass her, although there was no way of telling whether oncoming traffic was about to appear from the opposite side of the hill. Police were told that there was a car coming the other way, and that Decesaris swerved back to the right and slammed into Cunningham.

Brent Carpenter, an attorney for the Cunningham family, issued the following statement:

“Today an Anne Arundel County Grand Jury decided that the only charges which were going to be brought against the Whitney Decesaris in the death of Patricia Cunningham were traffic citations for 1) Negligent driving; 2) Failure to exercise care to avoid a bicycle ridden by a person; 3) unsafe passing and 4) failure to control speed.

“We are at a loss as to why the state’s attorney decided that a grand jury was needed to determine which of the two misdemeanors they would pursue. It is our understanding that the States Attorney Leitess decided that the most severe charge they would consider was the misdemeanor criminally negligent manslaughter charge. In our meeting with Ms. Leitess she seemed much more concerned with the possible defenses for Whitney Decesaris’ actions than the fact that those actions caused the death of Trish Cunningham and cause irreparable harm to our Family.

“It was our hope that out of this tragedy some good could come and a higher awareness of the need for cars and bikes to respect each other and the space needed for cyclists to safely ride on the roads; however it appears that the States Attorney’s office has determined that unless drugs, alcohol or phone use was involved it is open season on bicycles in Maryland. The loss to our family was huge and we understand that nothing can bring Trish back, but to do nothing but issuing a traffic ticket only compounds the tragedy and is unacceptable. Based upon our investigation, we believe that the Defendant (contrary to some news reports) never crossed the center line or attempted to pass until after Trish was struck from behind. There is no explanation as to how she failed to see Trish when it is a long straight hill and why she failed to do anything to avoid the wreck or even considered closing and passing a bicycle (or any vehicle) on a blind hill. We also look forward the complete file being released so the public can make up their own minds as to whether charges should have been filed.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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