A Montgomery County judge found a Takoma Park teenager responsible yesterday for causing the deaths last summer of two teenage passengers and a pickup truck driver by speeding and swerving down East West Highway before he lost control and spun into oncoming traffic.
Michael Schoenfeld, 17, was found "involved" -- the juvenile court equivalent of guilty -- in three counts of vehicular manslaughter and the traffic offense of reckless driving in the three-car collision July 14.
District Court Judge Eric M. Johnson found that Schoenfeld showed "gross negligence" by driving at least 68 mph -- more than twice the 30 mph limit -- and intentionally zigzagging on the curving, downhill road while driving five friends home from summer school classes at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
"We don't have a case of a young person driving who simply was going too fast, lost control and hit something," Johnson said in delivering his verdict. "The evidence is overwhelming that's not what we have here."
Johnson, who heard the case instead of a jury because Schoenfeld was tried as a juvenile, released the teenager to the custody of his parents until his disposition hearing, or sentencing, Sept. 22. The judge also put Schoenfeld on probation until then and ordered him to continue counseling and begin community service work.
At the disposition hearing, Johnson could order Schoenfeld held in a juvenile facility until he is 21. He ordered the Department of Juvenile Justice to prepare a social history of Schoenfeld, which the judge will use in considering how to rehabilitate the teenager, the main purpose of juvenile proceedings. Schoenfeld has no prior juvenile record, prosecutors said.
Lawyers familiar with the case said judges in such cases usually impose extensive community service and driver's license restrictions.
The verdict in the emotionally charged four-day trial drew tears and slow nods from the families of those killed in the collision: Matthew Waymon and Irn Williams, both 16, and John Francis Wert, 40.
Schoenfeld, who did not testify, cried during portions of the trial. But yesterday as the judge repeatedly declared him "involved" in the three deaths, he stared down at the defense table, as if in a daze, with his hands folded in his lap. His parents, Henry and Lucy Schoenfeld, appeared weary but showed no emotion on a bench behind him.
Lynne Waymon, Matthew's mother, cried afterward, saying she was upset that Schoenfeld didn't seem to accept responsibility for the collision because he pleaded "not involved" to the charges.
"His hands were on the wheel, and his feet were on the accelerator," Lynne Waymon said, her voice choked with emotion. "I want people to show respect for their friends. I'm left with the memory that my son's last 15 seconds were spent in terror."
Assistant State's Attorney Cheryl McCally argued during the trial that Schoenfeld, then 16 and a licensed driver for just two weeks, showed "deadly judgment" by wanting to "flex his driving muscles" to the five teenage boys packed in his car.
Three other people who were driving on East West Highway between Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues at the time of the crash testified that they saw Schoenfeld's Subaru Outback station wagon fishtailing down the road while speeding and weaving in and out of cars. On a downhill curve, Schoenfeld lost control, and the car's back end spun out, causing it to slide 150 feet across the center line. The Outback struck Wert's Isuzu pickup and then went airborne, flipping and landing on the truck and an Acura, in what witnesses described as a horrifying explosion.
Two teenage passengers in Schoenfeld's car testified that the group was screaming for Schoenfeld to slow down and shouting for everyone to put on their seat belts just before impact.
Schoenfeld and his parents, who left the courthouse surrounded by television cameras and shouting reporters, declined to comment.
Schoenfeld's attorney, David Driscoll, conceded to the judge during closing arguments that the teenager was speeding. However, he said, Schoenfeld did not intentionally drive 68 mph, as police said tire markings at the crash scene showed. Driscoll said the station wagon, loaded with six people, likely picked up speed as it went downhill.
With a car full of friends and the radio playing, Schoenfeld was probably distracted and, as an inexperienced driver, didn't know how to react in the few seconds when the car veered out of control, his attorney argued.
"This was a mistake," Driscoll told the judge. "This was negligence. That's the basis of responsibility we have to accept in this. This may have been reckless, but it was not conduct that rises to the level of criminal culpability."
But the judge, in explaining his verdict with color photographs of the wreckage before him, said Schoenfeld's swerving, in addition to speed, caused the collision. Johnson also noted the "significant" impact -- enough to "obliterate" the Schoenfelds' station wagon and destroy Wert's truck -- and the fact that Schoenfeld was speeding through a residential neighborhood near Bethesda's downtown business district.
Schoenfeld, who has not driven since the collision, relinquished his driver's license to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration soon after the accident, Driscoll said. But the three deaths still weigh heavily on the teenager, he said.
"Those losses are with us. They sadden everyone affected by it," Driscoll told the judge. "The weight of it for many is unbearably heavy. Michael bears his own cross for this."
The verdict came on the same day that new rules took effect requiring Maryland teenagers to drive longer on a learner's permit and provisional license before getting full driving privileges.
CAPTION: Michael Schoenfeld, followed by parents Lucy and Henry, leaves courthouse after trial.
CAPTION: Lynne Waymon speaks to reporters after the trial of Michael Schoenfeld. The Waymons' only child, Matthew, was killed in the crash. Waymon was upset that Schoenfeld didn't seem to accept responsibility for the deaths of his friends.