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  • Writer's pictureScott Shellenberger

Driver pleads guilty to felony manslaughter in fatal I-695 crash

By Cassidy Jensen | The Baltimore Sun | January 3, 2024 | Original Source

A 20-year-old driver charged in the Baltimore Beltway crash that killed six construction workers in March pleaded guilty to six counts of felony manslaughter.

Melachi Duane Darnell Brown entered his plea Wednesday in Baltimore County Circuit Court before Judge Vicki Ballou-Watts.

Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney Felise Kelly said prosecutors are asking for a sentence of 60 years, suspending all but 18 months at the Baltimore County Detention Center, a sentence would not include Brown’s time in pretrial detention. He also would be required to serve three years of supervised probation, complete community service and be prohibited from driving while on probation.

Each of the counts carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and sentencing guidelines range between three months in jail to 24 years in prison, Kelly said. His sentencing is set for March 28.

Jennifer Kafes, Brown’s attorney, could not be reached for comment on the plea agreement after court Wednesday.

Brown was driving a white Volkswagen on Interstate 695 north of Security Boulevard in Woodlawn on March 22 when another driver, 55-year-old Lisa Lea, attempted to merge into the leftmost lane. Her vehicle struck the front passenger side door of his car and her gray Acura went through a 156-foot gap in the construction site’s jersey wall barrier, according to a statement of facts Kelly read in court.

Lea’s Acura overturned multiple times and struck the workers, throwing some of them nearly 200 feet. Brown, who was not injured, stopped his car about 880 feet away from the crash, while Lea was taken to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Brown answered “yes” to most of Ballou-Watts’ questions Wednesday, at times so quietly that the judge asked him more than once to speak louder. He answered in the affirmative when she asked whether he had had a chance to discuss his plea with his mother, who was in the courtroom.

Lea faces 28 counts, including felony manslaughter and driving while impaired by drugs. Prosecutors said she had taken prescription medications, including oxycodone, and a blood test returned a positive result for THC. Her trial is set for April 1.

Kelly said data collected from the Volkswagen’s event recorder found Brown was driving at 122 mph five seconds before the two cars collided, although he told investigators he was going 60 mph. At the time of the collision, he was traveling at 111 mph, she said. Witnesses told investigators that before the crash both drivers were going “at a very high rate of speed” and narrowly missing other cars. The speed limit was 55 mph.

A state police investigator determined that Lea’s unsafe lane change was the primary cause of the crash, with driving while impaired and excessive speed as contributing factors. Brown’s excessive speed and aggressive driving also contributed to the crash, Kelly said.

Five employees of Concrete General and one inspector were killed in the March crash. All of them died at the scene. Brothers Jose Armando Escobar, 52, and Carlos Orlando Villatoro Escobar, 43, of Frederick were killed, along with Mahlon Simmons III, 31; his father, Mahlon Simmons II, of Union Bridge; Rolando Ruiz, 46, of Laurel; and Sybil Lee Dimaggio, 46, of Glen Burnie.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the crash is ongoing, but a Maryland Occupational Safety and Health report completed in September did not conclude that safety issues at the construction site contributed to the fatal collision. The Baltimore Sun obtained a redacted copy of the state report, which said a truck with a mounted attenuator, meant to protect construction zones from crashes, was parked in the work zone but not positioned to block workers.

State Highway Administration records show there were at least five incidents involving vehicles crashing into barriers at the Woodlawn work site before March 22.

Following a post-crash investigation, the Maryland Department of Labor cited the Maryland Department of Transportation and Concrete General for failing to post signs warning drivers that construction vehicles could be moving in and out of the work zone, calling the violation “unrelated” to the crash. The highway administration said the signage “would not have prevented” the crash.

Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, said in November that he would implement recommendations from the Work Zone Safety Work Group, a task force convened following the six deaths. Those changes included increasing the presence of state troopers in work zones and providing funding for work zone safety education projects.

Moore also said he would introduce a package of bills in the 2024 legislative session with other recommendations, including increasing the penalties for speeding in work zones.


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