Driver acquitted in teen death

KENNETH KRAMER

BY PAT FARNELLI

A 58-year-old Meshoppen man involved in a 2009 accident that caused the death of a 14-year-old boy was found not guilty Wednesday (Oct. 19) by a jury of vehicular homicide, involuntary manslaughter and recklessly endangering another person.

Kenneth R. Kramer Jr., of271 Allen St., smiled slightly when Wyoming County President Judge Russell Shurtleff read the three verdicts.

Kramer had been accused of causing the death of Michael Zajaczkowski of Meshoppen as he was riding his bike with a friend on Route 6. The ninth grader fromElkLakeHigh Schoolwas airlifted toDanvillewhere he died a week following the accident, onDec. 19, 2009.

The victim’s mother, Linda Garrison, paused outside the courtroom Wednesday afternoon with other relatives and said quietly that she could not understand how Kramer could have been found not guilty of all three charges.

“I know this can’t bring Michael back, but I wanted to do whatever I can to make this right, to have some kind of justice for his death,” she said.

The prosecution opened its case in the morning with six witnesses.

Tristan Vaow, a friend of the victim and fellowElkLakestudent testified that he was riding his bike just ahead of Zajaczkowski.

He said it was approaching dusk but still somewhat light out, and identified a large, bright orange coat and pair of red sneakers that district attorney Jeff Mitchell produced as exhibits of what his friend was wearing that evening at about5 p.m.

The two boys were headed from Tunkhannock into Meshoppen on Route 6, and Vaow said that he did not witness the impact, but heard a squeal of tires.

He said he didn’t see the vehicle, but saw headlights, and then later saw that it was a red pickup.

“He was coming down the road slowly, but he didn’t stop,” Vaow testified. “I told him to stop, then I ran to Michael. He was lying on the road.”

He said that Kramer got out of his truck, and that he told him to call 911, but that he didn’t know if he did make the call. “He didn’t go with me to help Michael,” Vaow said.

Cpl. Gerald Kinsella of the Pennsylvania State Police was called to testify as an accident reconstructionist.

He said he arrived on the scene at7:30 p.m., and that the scene was secure.

He said that the red pickup and the bike were both on the berm. The bike had severe damage to the rear wheel and handlebars, and the truck had a damaged right headlight and hood. There were 39 photos taken by the state police that were admitted into evidence. Most of the photos showed the skid marks and debris from the bike tire, which shattered. There was also a sneaker, which had torn loose from the victim’s foot.

Kinsella said that he had used the evidence to plot a coordinate system diagram and was able to determine the truck’s minimum speed was 39 mph.

One by one, the photos were shown to the jury and courtroom on a screen. The truck’s right tire mark was to the right of the bike’s skid mark, placing the victim at about the point of the right pickup headlight, until he was lifted onto the hood when the bike came to final rest.

“I don’t believe Michael was run over,” Kinsella concluded. “I have him on skid and final rest, and nowhere in between.”

Meshoppen Police Chief John Krieg testified that he was the first officer on the scene, and said that the victim was wearing an orange coat.

Krieg said he called the Tunkhannock barracks of the state police to assist, and took Kramer’s vehicle into custody, where it remained for several months.

He said he asked Kramer what occurred, and was given two different accounts. The first was that Kramer was near his turn ontoAllen Street, and that he pulled onto the berm to make his turn. Later, he volunteered that he was being tailgated, felt “pushed,” then pulled onto the berm to be courteous, at which point he felt an impact.

Public defender Deborah Albert-Heise called Kramer to the stand, and he was the defense’s only witness.

In his testimony, Kramer admitted he was looking for wild turkeys and deer along the woods on his left, and that he did not look to his right before moving onto the berm.

Albert-Heise also played a CD recording of Kramer’s 911 call from the scene.

Albert-Heise argued that Kramer should be found not guilty because the prosecution has to establish recklessness, or substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm, and that the defendant was aware of this risk.

“The evidence for recklessness has not been established here. Negligence, yes, recklessness, no,” Albert-Heise asserted.

Mitchell responded that just being tired while driving can be a reckless act. “I am not trying to show he was callous, I am trying to show it was reckless,” he said.

The prosecution and defense rested their cases at12:15 p.m., and the jury went to lunch.

At1:35 p.m., the court returned to session, and Shurtleff, Mitchell and Albert-Heise addressed the jury before it was sequestered.

The jury returned briefly to ask a question concerning the differences between the charges.

After less than an hour deliberating, the jury returned and the foreman handed the verdict sheet to the judge.

He read the three verdicts of not guilty, and then dismissed the jury with thanks for its service.

Then Judge Shurtleff dealt with summary offenses dating from the original incident which had not been put before the jury.

He issued a $200 fine for a reckless driving charge, a $25 fine for a disregarding traffic lanes charge, and a $75 fine for driving an unregistered vehicle.

Zajaczkowski’s stepfather commented that the three fines for summary offenses seemed like less than he’d expect for even a DUI.

Garrison, who had to drive her two surviving children home after they attended the trial and then go on to work in South Montrose, said that her only consolation was that she was able to donate Michael’s organs, and that she knows that parts of him are still around somewhere.

“I wrote to the organ recipients, and I hope someday they will write back,” she said.