MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When Magistrate Sandy Holepit declared the jury found Michelle Gelada not guilty of negligent homicide for striking and killing WVU student Leah Bernahu with her vehicle on Feb. 1 sobs from Berhanu’s friends and family filled the courtroom.
The jury delivered its verdict Friday afternoon following about an hour-and-a-half of deliberations. The trial began Thursday.
Gelada, a 21-year-old former WVU student, hit Berhanhu, 21, when she ran a red light at the intersection of Patteson Drive and Morrill Way, an entrance to WVU’s Evansdale campus.
In his closing argument to the six-person jury, defense attorney David Grunau reiterated a point made in his opening statement – this was a tragic accident caused by a large number of factors.
He said the jury heard the state’s own accident reconstructionist, Morgantown Police Officer Matt Beavers, testify Berhanu was in the crosswalk before she had a walk signal and as a result, she was in a place “no reasonable motorist would expect.”
Other factors include the dark – made worse because streetlights were out at the intersection – and the rain, Grunau said.
He told the jury that breaking a traffic law was not enough by itself to convict his client on negligent homicide. Gelada was not drunk, on drugs, texting, talking on the phone or speeding, Grunau said. Aggravating factors like those are needed to meet the standard of negligent homicide, he said.
Scott Crouch, a private accident reconstructionist and retired state trooper, testified Gelada’s average speed was 38 mph based on the video taken by a Mountain Line bus on Morrill Way at the time of the accident.
However, there was no way to tell if she was speeding at the time of the impact, Grunau said.
Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney Perri Jo DeChristopher said the video from the bus was a “remarkable” piece of evidence because it showed what really happened at the time of the crash.
She said it could not be disputed that Gelada ran the red light or that Berhanu had a walk signal and the right-of-way at the point of impact.
It shouldn’t have mattered that Berhanu wasn’t seen by Gelada because she should have stopped at the red light instead of accelerating to try and beat it, DeChristopher said.
“You don’t get to drive around with blinders on,” she said.
DeChristopher reminded the jury that every other car at the intersection managed to see the red light and stop.
She said that if Gelada hadn’t of hit Berhanu, she would have hit Karl Zang on his driver’s side. Zang was on Morill Way waiting to turn left. He did not immediately start moving when the light turned green because he was yielding to Berhanu, who he thought was in his blind spot, he testified Thursday.
“Everyone was in danger from her driving that night,” DeChristopher said.
Story by William Dean