Criminal conviction overturned, civil case still pending in deadly Mercer County I-77 wreck

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A civil case is pending in connection with a deadly wreck on Interstate 77 in Mercer County that killed four members of a North Carolina family in April 2017 for which an Illinois truck driver saw his criminal conviction overturned this week.

“There’s no criminal case,” said Janet Williamson, chief assistant prosecuting attorney for the Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

“We didn’t have the evidence to support a conviction for negligent homicide or reckless driving.”

Earlier this week, Mercer County Circuit Judge William Sadler cleared Bertram Copeland, 41, of criminal conduct in the wreck involving the tractor trailer he was driving and a Salisbury, North Carolina family’s vehicle which happened near Camp Creek.

Killed in the crash were Carl David Gilley, 48, Christine Tara Warden Gilley, 42, and their two children, Grace Margaret Gilley, 13, and Jack Nathaniel Gilley, 10, along with the family dog, Harley.

Investigators have said Copeland’s truck, which was traveling south down a descent, crossed the I-77 median and slammed into the passenger vehicle starting a fire.

From the start, Copeland claimed his brake system failed.

He was previously convicted of four counts of negligent homicide and a single count of reckless driving in Mercer County Magistrate Court following his initial arrest in January 2018.

This past March, Copeland was sentenced to four years in jail.

Williamson said the decision dismissing that came out of what’s called a trial de novo which means the entire case was considered anew as if there had been no earlier trial.

Copeland’s attorney had appealed the magistrate court conviction with an argument on the limits of state law which includes the following:

“A conviction for 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.”

“He wasn’t disobeying any traffic statute and, when he went into the median, he did so because his brakes had failed,” Williamson said.

“You’d have to prove that he knew his brakes were going to fail because of some sort of defect, that he was driving regardless of that. We couldn’t prove that.”

Since the wreck, the speed limit for I-77 at the crash site has been lowered to 60 miles per hour, in part, because of efforts to improve highway safety in coordination with the West Virginia Parkways Authority from people who knew the Gilleys.

Additional safety measures, including ways to possibly prevent future crossover accidents, were being reviewed.

At the time of the wreck that claimed their lives, the Gilley Family was en route to Ohio to spend Easter with family.

Willliamson said their survivors had an emotional response to the decision to overturn the convictions.

“They lost a family, an entire family, they’re completely devastated,” Williamson said. “It’s just a tragic, tragic accident.”

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