Murder charges rare in Fayette vehicular deaths

Hit-and-run involving Police officer rates an exception

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comMay 10, 2010 

Glenn Doneghy

When a young, decorated police officer died recently after a hit-and-run, the alleged driver, a man with a criminal history, was charged with murder.

In Fayette County, that is a relatively rare charge in a vehicular homicide. In most Lexington cases, lesser charges have been filed even when drivers were drunk, on drugs, speeding or acting recklessly.

The difference between those cases and the recent case against Glen Doneghy, according to the police citation, is that the circumstances surrounding the death of Lexington police Officer Bryan J. Durman showed "an extreme indifference to human life," including Doneghy's failure to stop to help Durman.

Under Kentucky law, that indifference is the critical factor in a charge of wanton murder.

Fayette Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson said only about 10 murder charges have been filed in vehicular homicide cases in the last 25 years, and he recalls getting murder convictions in all but one.

A jury hearing the case of Doneghy, 33, could be swayed by who Durman was — a 27-year-old husband and father, an honored policeman, a former serviceman — according to Lexington attorney Fred Peters, who has represented defendants in at least three vehicular hom icide cases.

"Whoever defends this guy is going to have a difficult time because of the outpouring of support for the officer and his family," Peters said.

When asked whether Doneghy's murder charge was because Durman was a police officer, Larson didn't answer directly.

"My experience is that the police charge cases based on the specific facts — each case stands on its own facts," he said.

One case considered not to be murder was the 2008 death of University of Kentucky freshman Connie Blount, who was struck and killed in a hit-and-run on South Broadway. Shannon Houser, the driver of the truck, was charged with and convicted of tampering with evidence and leaving the scene. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

In 2006, Thomas "Tommy" Johns Jr. received a five-year sentence after being convicted of reckless homicide after killing a pedestrian, Prescott Hoffman, while driving in downtown Lexington.

In both cases, family members called for more serious charges.

Boone Commonwealth's Attorney Linda Tally Smith, who was an intern in Larson's office in the mid-1990s and said she had observed him for years, said Larson does not counsel police to overcharge "based on emotion."

Smith said the infrequent charging of murder in such cases shows that Larson uses it for "situations that are more aggravated."

In Boone County, Smith said murder charges are brought in one out of 12 vehicular cases.

In fact, the day after Durman died, Daniel Keith Gabbard, a minister, was sentenced to 20 years for murder for killing Commonwealth's Attorney Doug Wright when he hit Wright's car with his semi last June. Gabbard's attorney, Brad Fox, said he plans to appeal the case.

Wright was a prosecutor in Pendleton, where Gabbard was convicted, and Harrison, Nicholas and Robertson counties.

Smith, who served as a special prosecutor on the case, said she didn't file the murder charge because Wright was a prosecutor but because "it was the appropriate charge."

Pointing a gun

Outside Fayette County, murder charges in fatal wrecks appear to be more frequent. Harry Rothgerber said that in Jefferson County, where he is first assistant commonwealth's attorney, "the heinousness of the offense matters" and results in murder convictions in some cases.

But some cases end in the lesser conviction of second-degree manslaughter, he said.

A jury convicted a drunken driver on two counts of murder when he was driving the wrong way and killed two brothers in Jefferson County, he said.

Christopher Cohron, a past president of the Kentucky Commonwealth's Attorneys Association, said that, while he wasn't familiar with every aspect of the Doneghy case, Doneghy's failure to stop and render aid "adds to the nature of the offense."

Vehicular homicides are among the most difficult cases to present to a jury, said Cohron, the Warren commonwealth's attorney.

"If somebody points a gun and somebody pulls a trigger, people can comprehend that," said Cohron. "It becomes somewhat more difficult for a juror to understand the complexity of a wanton murder charge."

Leaving the scene

The story of Durman, a husband, an Air Force veteran and the father of a 4-year-old boy, compelled hundreds of police officers and residents to line the streets of Lexington last week for his funeral procession.

It was only days before his 28th birthday that, at about 10 p.m. April 29, Durman was sent to investigate a complaint that a car parked in front of a house on North Limestone was playing loud music, according to police.

Durman parked his cruiser up the street and walked back to the vehicle, which was parked on the left side of the one-way street.

The officer approached the vehicle's passenger side when a 1998 Chevrolet Tahoe heading north on North Limestone struck him and two parked vehicles.

The vehicle did not stop, police reports said.

In addition to murder, Doneghy is charged with leaving the scene of an accident, possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance suspected to be cocaine.

He is being held at the Fayette Count Detention Center and declined a request for an interview.

Doneghy has an extensive criminal history, with charges including assaulting a police officer, harassment and possession of drugs, according to court documents. He had two outstanding bench warrants for failure to appear in court on previous charges.

It was unclear Friday whether his family has hired an attorney to represent Doneghy.

In vehicular homicides, the actions of the victims are often scrutinized. Thus far in the Doneghy investigation, there is no hint that Durman's actions might have contributed to his death. He was following policy in terms of where he was standing, Lexington police said.

Sherelle Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Lexington police, would not say whether the street was well lighted or whether Durman's emergency lights were flashing. She said that information was part of the investigation.

Police have said alcohol and drugs are suspected factors in the crash, though Doneghy had not been charged with those offenses as of Friday.

'Juries are human'

Vehicular homicide defendants are usually charged with one of three offenses: reckless homicide, which carries a sentence of one to five years; second-degree manslaughter, five to 10 years; or wanton murder, 20 years to life.

In second-degree manslaughter and wanton murder, the suspect knows that his or her actions could cause serious injury or death but consciously disregards the risk. But in the case of murder, he or she shows "extreme indifference to human life."

Juries considering the murder charge often are also asked to consider whether the defendant should be convicted of reckless homicide.

Under that charge, the defendant fails to perceive a risk of serious injury or death that he should have known existed.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have said that what happens to a defendant can depend on facts such as how fast the defendant was driving, how much he had to drink and how reckless he was.

But other factors play a role, including public sympathy for the victim.

"Juries are human," said Smith, the Northern Kentucky prosecutor. "Who the victim is, their family and their family's presence is always going to have an impact on juries. There's no way that can be filtered out.

News researcher Lu-Ann Farrar contributed to this report. Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3409.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service