A D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday convicted a Washington man of second-degree murder in connection with the death of an 11-year-old girl killed by his speeding car, marking the first time since 1940 that a driver in a fatal accident here has been found guilty of murder with an automobile as the weapon.
The verdict stemmed from the death last year of Melanie Nicholson, a sixth-grader who was riding to church with her father when William A. Powell, fleeing from police at speeds of more than 80 mph, plowed his car into the rear of the car in which she was riding.
Melanie was trapped in the car and burned to death. Her father, Clarence W. Nicholson, was critically injured, but recovered. The two had been stopped in their Honda at a light at Massachusetts Avenue and Second Street NW. The Honda crumpled in half from the force of the collision and burst into flames.
Powell, 32, of the 2300 block of Hartford Street SE, faces a maximum sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
Yesterday's verdict follows by six weeks a similar verdict in Warrenton, where a drunken driver was convicted of second-degree murder in a crash that left three people dead.
That was the first such conviction in Virginia. There was no evidence that Powell, who was trying to avoid a speeding ticket, had been drinking or using drugs before the accident.
The girl's family, which sat through the emotion-packed 10-day trial, burst into tears after the verdict was read. Her father, a 43-year-old office furniture salesman who is a deacon at the Corinthian Baptist Church at Fifth and I streets NW, said the verdict "restored my faith in the justice system."
Nicholson, who was severely burned in the crash, said he hoped that the verdict "might help someone else's child from being slaughtered as mine was."
His wife Lois, a D.C. public school music teacher who played the organ and piano for the church, thanked several of the jurors afterward. "It [the verdict] won't bring my baby back," she tearfully told one juror, "but it helps lift some of the burden."
Prosecutors generally file manslaughter or negligent homicide charges against drivers who cause fatal accidents. In this case, prosecutors say they filed the murder charge because they felt the recklessness involved and Powell's alleged awareness of the risks he was taking by driving so fast warranted the more severe charge. In order to find a defendant guilty of murder, the law provides that a jury has to find that there is a "conscious disregard of a substantial risk to human life."
According to testimony at the trial, Powell, a custodian who was on probation for possession of heroin, was clocked by police at more than 80 mph in a 35-mph zone on the Suitland Parkway that Sunday morning, Oct. 25.
Officers chased him onto the Southeast Freeway, through the Third Street tunnel and onto an exit ramp leading to the light where the crash occurred.A traffic collision expert testified that Powell was traveling between 60 and 80 mph when he struck the Honda with his 1970 Cadillac.
Powell's lawyer, Mark S. Carlin, argued that Powell was not traveling that fast when he struck the Nicholsons' car. Carlin also said that "at the very end," Powell tried to stop but "it was too late." Carlin argued that Powell's actions that day were not so reckless to warrant a verdict of murder.
"There's no question that Mr. Powell was negligent," Carlin told the jurors in his closing argument. But "no rational person would crash his car into the rear of another," Carlin said. He argued that the prosecution's theory that Powell had his foot on the accelerator pedal at the time of the accident was "preposterous."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Pamela B. Stuart argued that Powell, in an effort to avoid a speeding ticket, drove so recklessly and with such "disregard for human life," that he should be convicted, not of manslaughter, but of second-degree murder.
Stuart told the jurors that the evidence showed that Powell made the choice of "a piece of paper [the ticket] for a human life," arguing that he caused the crash to district the police so he could escape.
The jury also convicted Powell of assault with a dangerous weapon, which carries a maximum of 10 years in prison, for the injuries sustained by Clarence Nicholson. Ryan ordered Powell held on $10,000 bond pending sentencing on Dec. 16.
The last such verdict was in 1940, when a 26-year-old laborer from Missouri was convicted of second-degree murder after his speeding car struck and killed two pedestrians in the District of Columbia.