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First Degree Homicide conviction overturned in a Georgia Hit-and-Run case

Under state statute (G.L. c. 90 § 24), all drivers in Massachusetts have a legal obligation to stop and identify themselves whenever they know that their vehicle has collided with another vehicle, property, or a person. If the driver collides with another person, leaving them dead or unconscious, the driver must stay at the scene and provide information to another motorist or officer, or leave the scene to find a telephone to report the accident to authorities. Failure to do so could result in license suspension or criminal offenses.

Other states, such as Georgia, also require drivers to provide injured parties “reasonable assistance,” including providing, or arranging for, transportation of the injured parties for medical attention. Under Georgia statutes OCGA 40-6-270, a driver could be charged with a felony hit-and-run for failing to provide such assistance. Another statute, OCGA 40-6-393, also allows for a driver who fails to stop as required under 40-6-270 to be charged with first degree vehicular homicide if he injures a person and that person subsequently dies. Under the second statutory provision, a person could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, in comparison to the five years under the hit-and-run provision.

The case of Henry v. State, heard by the Court of Appeals of Georgia, demonstrates the different legal issues that come into play in such hit-and-run cases. In Henry v. State, the defendant was operating a vehicle with a passenger down a public road in Georgia after midnight, when he struck two fourteen year-old boys walking in the grass along the road. The passenger testified that he felt an impact and saw one boy’s head hit the hood of the defendant’s pickup truck, and screamed to the defendant: “You just killed somebody. Stop Henry.” The passenger also testified that he was certain that this boy died on impact. Rather than stop to provide assistance as the statute requires, the defendant sped home and later abandoned the truck in a field with the intention of reporting it stolen.

The deceased boy was found dead by emergency responders at the scene of the accident, near the second boy who suffered substantial injuries. Aside from the actual crime scene and the passenger’s testimony at trial, there was no other evidence regarding whether or how long the deceased boy survived the impact. The abandoned truck was found in a field the morning after the incident.

The defendant was subsequently charged with two counts of felony hit-and-run, and one count of first-degree vehicular homicide. He was also found guilty on all three charges and was sentenced to the maximum penalty of 15 years in prison under the vehicular homicide charge. Defendant appealed the trial court’s finding of guilt on the vehicular homicide charge, arguing that although he was in fact guilty of the hit-and-run, the state did not meet its burden in proving that his failure to remain at the scene contributed to the victim’s death. The Appeals Court agreed, and remanded to the trial court to reduce the sentence term.

The reason the defendant succeeded in his appeal was due to the manner in which the Court interpreted the language of the Georgia statute for first degree vehicular homicide. The Court noted that causing a death through failing to stop and render assistance was materially different from causing a death and then failing to stop and render assistance. The difference in interpretation is key here because the state in Henry v. State only proved that the defendant’s collision with the boy likely killed the boy on impact, rather than that the boy died partly as a result of the defendant failing to stop to provide assistance. Since the boy died on impact, the defendant could not be held liable under the first degree vehicular homicide charge since there was no evidence that the boy’s life may have been saved had the defendant actually stopped the vehicle. As the Court notes, the flaw is really in the language of the statue, which only the legislature could correct. And the legislature did in fact revise the statute following this decision.

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