MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The trial for the woman who struck and killed a pedestrian in a crosswalk at the intersection of Patteson Drive and Morrill Way began in Monongalia County Magistrate Court on Thursday.
Michelle Gelada, 21, of Watagh, N.Y., is charged with negligent homicide for striking and killing Leah Berhanu, 21, of Morgantown.
The collision occurred about 6:30 p.m. Feb. 1.
In her opening statement to the jury, Monongalia County Prosecutor Perri Jo DeChristopher, said this case is about a choice Gelada made: An illegal choice to speed up to try to make it before the light turned red. A choice that resulted in Berhanu’s death, she said.
Berhanu’s death was tragic but the reality is traffic accidents happen, Defense Attorney David Grunau said.
He disagreed with DeChristopher that his client was acting with reckless disregard for the safety of others. Grunau told the jury there were many factors that led to Berhanu’s death – it was raining, it was night and street lights at the intersection in question were out – and he said the jury would see the state could not meet the burden of proof needed to convict her of negligent homicide.
Grunau said his client was not drinking, on drugs, texting, talking on the phone or speeding. DeChristopher did not dispute that claim.
The first witness was Officer Matt Beavers, a traffic reconstructionist with the Morgantown Police Department. He walked the jury through the scene and told them about his reconstruction process.
Beavers and Officer Alex Arthurs, the first MPD officer on the scene, described the accident to the jury. They said there was debris around the road including Gelada’s license plate and frame, Berhanu’s teeth and a book, among other items.
Arthurs described the scene as “chaotic” when she got there with large groups of people around both Berhanu’s body and Gelada.
The jury viewed a video recorded by a Mountain Line bus that showed Gelada’s vehicle, a red 2000 Ford Explorer, hitting Berhanu in the crosswalk.
Berhanu’s family left the courtroom before the video was shown.
Beavers said he believes Gelada sped up based off an acceleration noise heard in the video. Berhanu’s body was found about 175 feet away from the crosswalk, he said.
Erick Horvwait, the driver of the bus that recorded the accident, said when he saw Berhanu’s body, he knew there was no hope for her. Another witness to the collision, Mitchell Duckworth, described her body as “pretty broken” and said he couldn’t find a pulse.
Beavers explained the timing of the traffic light and crosswalk system and admitted to Grunau that the video from the bus showed Berhanu entering the crosswalk while the light on Patteson was still yellow.
Horvwait agreed with Beavers that Gelada seemed to speed up and the acceleration noise in the video matched what he heard that night.
He was on Morrill Way with two cars in front of him when he saw Gelada’s vehicle not slowing down for the red light, he said.
It seemed like Gelada didn’t see Berhanu because when she got out of her car and saw her, she “freaked out” and began to cry, Horvwait said.
Duckworth, who was traveling about a car-length behind Gelada in the right-hand lane. Gelada was traveling in the left-hand lane. Duckworth testified he didn’t see Berhanu either but said his wife, Aubrey, did. She testified that she saw Berhanu in the crosswalk, but after Gelada ran the red light she couldn’t find Berhanu because she was looking at the far lanes of traffic thinking Berhanu made it across.
Duckworth did not see Gelada driving in a reckless manner, he told Grunau.
The last witness to the crash who testified Thursday was Karl Zang. He echoed the other witnesses that he heard a revving noise before the crash.
He also acknowledged, like the other witnesses, that the street lights at the intersection were out.
The trial resumes at 8:30 a.m. Friday.
Story by William Dean