PRINCETON — The conviction of an Illinois man who was driving a tractor-trailer on I-77 that crashed into a vehicle killing a family of four in 2017 has been overturned in Mercer County Circuit Court.
Judge William Sadler dismissed the case Tuesday, citing the lack of evidence to support the charges of negligent homicide, for which Bertram Copeland, 41, was sentenced in March to four years in jail.
A charge of reckless driving was also dismissed, said Assistant Prosecutor Janet Williamson.
Copeland was found guilty in Magistrate Court on four counts of negligent homicide and one count of reckless driving, and received the maximum sentencing for those charges.
Defense attorney Derrik Lefler appealed the conviction, and on Tuesday Sadler ruled on that appeal.
Copeland was arrested in January 2018 in connection with the death of Carl David Gilley, 48, Christine Tara Warden Gilley 42, their daughter Grace Margaret Gilley, 13 and son Jack Nathaniel Gilley, 10, all of Salisbury, NC. The family was killed in a head-on crash with Copeland’s tractor-trailer on April 13, 2017 near the Camp Creek exit on Interstate 77. Their family dog, Harley, was killed in the crash as well.
Williamson said Sadler told the family he understood their grief and “the easiest thing to do would be find him guilty,” but he knew the law did not support the charges and would be overturned if sent to a higher court.
Sadler cited a case in the defendant’s trial brief submitted by Lefler that said a conviction of negligent homicide “must not be premised solely upon violation of a traffic statute unless the underlying act which constitutes the violation or accompanying circumstances evidences a reckless disregard for the safety of others, characterized by negligence so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show disregard for human life.”
Williamson said that is the basis of Sadler’s decision.
“The standard is the same here,” she said. “You have to have intent – so reckless, so wanton and willful.”
Although Copeland’s tractor-trailer was in the southbound lanes, carrying a heavy load and crossed the median and “obliterated” another vehicle, “it was not clear that any defects of the tractor-trailer were known to the defendant,” she said, referring to Copeland’s claim of mechanical failure.
Williamson also said a man who is a tractor-trailer driver was behind Copeland when the crash happened, and he said he saw Copeland “ride his brakes”as he went down the steep hill, but the truck crossed into the passing lane and then across the median.
The recommended speed for that descent is 55, but the limit was 70 at that time (it has since been lowered to 60) and Copeland was going at least 70 as he started going down the 5 percent grade, she added.
Williamson said the failure of the braking system to work properly is a “common occurrence” in tractor-trailers and it’s not clear if Copeland “down-shifted” to help slow down his rig, which would have been routine.
Williamson said “intent” has to be proven, and Sadler determined that the legal basis on which the charges rested did not support a conviction for negligent homicide and the court dismissed the case.
Copeland, who Williamson said has always been remorseful and was himself seriously injured in the crash, maintained all along he did nothing wrong, that the brakes would not stop the truck.
“This was an accident, this was an accident,” he stated during the sentencing hearing. “That truck needed $10,000 of work on it...I didn’t know that. They (trucking company) railroaded me. It wasn’t the brakes, it was the air. I completely lost air out there. The wheels locked up...the weight shifted to the left. You all act like I’m a monster, but I’m not.”
“I feel all your pain and I’m truly sorry,” Copeland continued. “I ain’t blaming God for this. I’m saying I don’t understand. I can’t wrap my mind around it, I know that I did not mean for this to happen.”
Williamson said about 10 friends and family members of the Gilley were in court Tuesday and were upset with the decision.
Sadler apologized to them, she said, but he told them he had no choice but to follow the law.
Since the April 2017 tragedy, members of the Gilley family have been active in trying to bring safety measures to that six-mile stretch of highway at Camp Creek, which has seen 12 fatalities in just over two years.
An investigation into what can be done to make the area safer began by the West Virginia Parkways Authority and several moves have been made, including the speed limit change, flashing chevrons warning motorists of the curve, changeable message boards, increased State Police enforcement and an extra Public Service Commission enforcement officer to deal primarily with truck traffic.
A safety study has been under way and the Parkways Authority Board may make other changes, especially dealing with trying to prevent a vehicle from crossing the median. The board’s next meeting is June 13.
— Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com