A Virginia man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for causing an accident that resulted in the death of a well-known Wicomico County woman.
At the conclusion of a two-day bench trial, Somerset County Circuit Court Judge Daniel W. Powell found 44-year-old Lewis Eric Owens of Parksley guilty of seven charges with the most serious negligent manslaughter by motor vehicle.
The collision was at 12:21 p.m. on a clear spring Sunday, April 19, 2020. Owens was driving a rented Ford Fusion east on Polks Road at a high rate of speed when he was unable to stay in his lane coming around a blind curve. He struck nearly head-on a Hyundai Elantra being driven west by Wendy Thompson, 79, of Whitehaven.
She would succumb to her injuries three days later.
Kimberly Carey, a passenger riding with Owens, testified that he picked her up at the Wallops Island Royal Farms and they were on their way to Salisbury. After a stop in Pocomoke City at some point they wound up “probably lost” on rural Polks Road where the speed limit is 50 mph.
Owens turned around to head east toward Allen Road, but was driving so fast it alarmed Carey who asked him to slow down, saying, “I don’t want to die today.”
She closed her eyes when she saw the car coming in the opposite direction, with the collision occurring in the area of 29990 Polks Road.
“It happened so fast,” Carey said, unable to provide any detail and shattering one ankle and breaking her toes in the aftermath.
Maryland State Police Fatal Collision Reconstruction Team Sgt. Charles Gore testified as to what the black boxes in each vehicle recorded just seconds before impact. Ten seconds out Owens was traveling at 83 mph and entered the curve at approximate 68-69 mph.
At one second before impact the car’s computer recorded a speed of 61.5 mph with the last reading at 48.9 mph which by then the collision had started, the sergeant said. Physical evidence of yaw marks on the road surface showed the Ford was in the westbound travel lane — and would have likely continued off the road had there not been a collision.
Unlike the Ford which records data five times a second the computer in Thompson’s vehicle recorded speed and braking in 5-second intervals. Gore said his analysis showed that the Hyundai was moving 41.6 mph 5 seconds from impact and in the low 30s at time of the collision, after which the Hyundai spun around 180 degrees.
He told the court “excessive speed” by the Ford on the curve was the cause of the crash. Thompson, who was out of the vehicle when the first paramedic arrived, was unconscious and remained that way although a pulse was restored on the way to TidalHealth Peninsula Regional. Medical records including those from Shock-Trauma were introduced by State’s Attorney Wess Garner, who prosecuted the case along with Assistant State’s Attorney Erica Witz.
The cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma, said Assistant State Medical Examiner Dr. Russell Alexander, with Thompson suffering a broken neck, a spinal cord injury and bleeding on the brain.
As for Owens, he did not testify. Firefighter/Paramedic Doug Lewis said from the witness stand that he attended to Owens who complained of leg and back pain, adding that he said he had smoked some marijuana.
When questioned by defense attorney Arch McFadden, Lewis said he saw no smoking devices or smelled marijuana, but Owens’ relaxed demeanor in the ambulance had Lewis concerned that Owens might be going into shock.
Blood was taken from Owens at TidalHealth by Kandice Bond, RN, who testified via Zoom that Deputy Matthew Tunney was a witness.
Tunney said Owens first objected and then consented to the blood draw.
State Police Crime Lab Forensic Scientist Wayne Shu testified that the blood analysis showed the presence of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, metabolized THC, and metabolized cocaine. In answering questions from the defense, Shu said he could not determine when the drugs were consumed or level of sobriety.
Owens was heard by way of a taped interview conducted by Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Kevin Goepfert after his arrest on Jan. 22. Owens said he knew he was going too fast, but as for any marijuana or cocaine he had not consumed either that day. When he learned Thompson had died, Owens said, “I cried all I can cry.”
After the state’s case McFadden motioned for judgment of acquittal on several counts, including Owens giving false accident information, which was granted. McFadden also went through the testimony and how it did not show Owens was under the influence. The judge would later find Owens not guilty of charges related to the accident being due to an impairment caused by controlled dangerous substances.
Garner said by email after the trial that cases like this are tough to prove because the blood doesn’t show when drugs are ingested or how much is consumed. It is also hard to observe whether a person is impaired when they are immobilized on a stretcher, he added.
Negligent manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of 10 years which is what the state recommended. The one misdemeanor and five related traffic offenses for which Owens was also found guilty were merged into the single felony for sentencing.
Owens, who was a barber and tattoo artist, had been held without bond since his arrest due to his prior record.
Following Thompson’s death the church bell in Whitehaven rang in her honor as she was active with the Whitehaven Heritage Association. She came to the United States from England in 1988, settling first in Salisbury then Whitehaven and worked for a time in public relations at Salisbury University.
She could be heard on local public radio, hosting her own show on WESM-FM, and contributed to Metropolitan Magazine. She had also been a judge of the National Hard Crab Derby Crab Cooking Contest for several years.
She was a member of the Salisbury Meeting of the Society of Friends and attended meetings regularly.
In addition to her daughter Rayne, who lives in California but attended the trial, Thompson was loved by friends near and far. Last summer they rallied to pay the medical expenses related to her 11-year-old spaniel, Samuel, who stayed behind with neighbors in Whitehaven rather than be relocated to California.
State’s Attorney Garner said, “I’m happy we were able to bring justice and closure for the victim’s family.”