A judge found Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) not guilty of a hit-and-run charge yesterday, saying that prosecutors failed to prove that he knowingly fled the scene of a fender bender near Tysons Corner last spring.
Judge Craig Johnston, ruling after a two-hour trial in General District Court with seven witnesses, acknowledged that Connolly's failure to realize that his red Toyota Camry had collided with a black Ford Explorer on International Drive the morning of May 14 "is perhaps subject to some incredulity on the part of many." He said "there was certainly good reason" for Fairfax police to charge Connolly. But Johnston said the prosecutor did not prove that the county's top political leader purposefully drove away to a meeting after colliding with the Explorer in the left-turn lane.
Connolly, accompanied in court by his wife, daughter and several friends and aides, said after the verdict that he was relieved to put the accident behind him.
"Justice has worked," he said. The misdemeanor charge carried a maximum sentence of 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. The defendant's stature turned an otherwise routine traffic case into a full-scale investigation that questioned Connolly's judgment and led him to take the stand. Johnston, a Prince William judge, heard the case after the Fairfax court recused itself to avoid any perception of conflict.
The cars hit each other in the southbound left-turn lanes after Connolly's Camry, with a standard transmission, stalled as he started to change lanes. The Camry's nose edged into the Explorer's lane, resulting in $248 in damages to the Ford.
Lewis Pfister, who was driving the Explorer, and his wife Karen testified that they immediately heard the sound of screeching brakes and knew they had been in an accident. "The sound was so loud that when we got out of the car [to see the damage], I was surprised" at how limited it was, Karen Pfister testified.
The couple said Connolly looked at them, then drove away, continuing through the green light at International Drive and Route 123.
Connolly, however, testified that he heard the Explorer's brakes screech and the driver honk but did not feel any impact to his car. "I experienced the whole thing as one of those close calls you have, where you say, 'Thank God I was able to get the car started,' " he said. Connolly testified that he proceeded to his meeting at the Government Center, then returned to Tysons for lunch with an old friend and headed back to his office at SAIC before returning home that night, still unaware that his car had a dent.
He said he discovered a dent on the driver's side of his car the following morning.
Connolly's lawyer, Rod Leffler, said his client went about his businesses that day as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. An aide and his lunch date testified that he was upbeat and in good spirits -- not the demeanor of someone who knew he had just fled the scene of an accident.
But Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Marc Birnbaum asked Connolly repeatedly how he could have gotten in and out of his car at least five times after the accident and not noticed the dent, on the driver's side above the front tire. He also asked Connolly whether he was "in a heightened state of awareness" since his car had stalled in traffic.
Connolly responded testily, "My day starts with [a slew of] phone calls. . . . It is not my normal practice to inspect my vehicle."
Johnston, in issuing his not guilty ruling, said Connolly's "position and his duties have caused him to be oblivious to what is going on in his car."
The Pfisters declined to comment after the verdict.