When tragedy struck last month at Scottsville Road and Shive Lane, the legal system went into action.
A police investigation into the death of 18-year-old Alexander Harkins led to Kathy Keeler’s arrest under suspicion of causing the Alvaton teenager’s death when her SUV collided with Harkins’ motorcycle.
Though police initially charged Keeler, 28, of Bowling Green, with second-degree manslaughter, a grand jury may consider a more serious charge of wanton murder in addition to felony wanton endangerment counts and operating a motor vehicle while under the influence.
A vehicular homicide investigation in Warren County is a process that involves the close work of the investigating police agency and the Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
“These are never really decisions that a police officer or trooper makes on their own,” said Capt. John Clark, commander of Kentucky State Police Post 3. “We look at the totality of the circumstances and collect evidence and usually go and have a conversation with the county and commonwealth attorneys and talk about what we have.”
Reconstructing the crash
Interviews of witnesses, surviving victims and the suspect in a vehicular homicide investigation comprise the beginning of the case.
For new law enforcement officers, the Department of Criminal Justice Training in Richmond offers specialized training in accident investigation, as does the Kentucky State Police Academy in Frankfort.
For state troopers, the weeklong training course is preparation for a continuing education comprised of fieldwork at the scene of serious injury collisions and fatalities.
Select officers are certified as accident reconstructionists by way of more thorough training.
“We watch (troopers) closely, and in the first two years of someone’s career, we identify folks who seem to have a natural talent at working vehicle collisions,” Clark said.
The six-week course conducted at the KSP academy immerses troopers in the minutiae involved in identifying causes of a crash.
“It’s an intense course that is, to say the least, very difficult,” said Clark, a certified reconstructionist. “It’s a lot of algebra and physics, and you use those together to calculate, based on evidence that’s left on the roadway and in those cars, based on damage and marks on the roads, things like vehicle speeds.”
Further weeklong courses are offered annually at the state police academy to keep certified reconstructionists up to date on the newest developments in vehicle technology and how they affect the vehicles and people involved in collisions.
At the scene, a reconstructionist can examine the damage a vehicle has sustained and skid marks and scrapes left on the road to surmise the direction a car was traveling.
The mechanism of a car can also offer several clues. “There are all kinds of tests that can be run on cars to see if there were any steering problems, brake problems,” Clark said.
Computer analysis of a car’s airbag control module or other components can help investigators determine where in the vehicle a victim was seated.
“Sometimes you’ll get good information such as speed, whether the brakes were engaged or the gas was engaged or other information that’s valuable in determining exactly what happened in a crash,” Clark said.
Determining a crime
When police are able to determine that a vehicle fatality rises to the level of a crime, the investigating agency will often contact Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Cohron’s office the day of the incident to discuss the facts that officers at the scene have been able to develop, Clark said.
Sometimes those discussions will lead to a clearer understanding of what offenses may be charged against a suspect.
It’s not uncommon, however, for additional information to emerge after police make an arrest at the outset of an investigation, resulting in a grand jury returning an indictment on a more or less serious homicide charge.
“Any time we have a vehicular assault or vehicular homicide, we look at the factual interaction of the defendant and the victim, the speed involved and the criminal history of the defendant when making the charging decision,” Cohron said.
A total of 22 homicide cases have been prosecuted in Warren County since the beginning of 2000 in which a motor vehicle was involved, and many of those cases involve a defendant who was accused of driving while intoxicated.
Three of the cases are still pending, while the remaining 19 cases have resulted in convictions.
All but one of the resolved cases, however, led to convictions on a lesser charge than murder.
In the one exception, Randy Ostrihon pleaded guilty to wanton murder, first-degree assault and operating a motor vehicle under the influence in connection with a 2008 crash on Glasgow Road in which his car struck a motorcycle stopped at a red light in front of him. One person died, and another was paralyzed in the crash.
Under state law, a person operating a motor vehicle can be guilty of wanton murder if the victim’s death is caused by a person driving under circumstances that manifest an extreme indifference to human life and engaging in conduct that creates a grave risk of death to another person.
Ostrihon’s 20-year sentence is the most severe handed out to someone accused in a vehicle fatality in Warren County.
State fosters cooperation
The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office has held an annual training event for the past several years that focuses on how to successfully prosecute vehicular homicide cases.
This year’s session was held in Bowling Green last month and attracted law enforcement and prosecutors from Kentucky and Tennessee for two days of classes and demonstrations.
“What the training does is bring the two sides who investigate these cases together to talk about what they can do better to ensure successful prosecutions,” said Allison Martin, communications director for the attorney general’s office.
The way to an effective prosecution involves prosecutors and police reaching a better understanding of each other’s responsibilities.
“I think a lot of it is awareness between the two agencies ... what the needs of the prosecutors are and what the needs of the officers are to secure convictions,” Martin said. “At the end of the day, the arresting officer wants the same thing as the prosecutor.”
Warren County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorneys Kori Beck and Daniel “Tres” Miller attended this year’s training.
Miller said the training, especially a demonstration at the National Corvette Museum Motorsports Park simulating a crash involving a vehicle and pedestrian, offered valuable perspective into the legwork that officers and reconstructionists perform during an investigation.
“It’s one of the best trainings I’ve been to because it gets you real-world experience,” Miller said.
The annual training is made possible through funding from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
“I think it’s more valuable when we attend training that incorporates both law enforcement and prosecutors,” Beck said. “It’s important for both of us to know what the other does.”