CHARLESTON W.Va. (AP) — An off-duty deputy sheriff in West Virginia who struck and killed a 13-year-old girl with his police cruiser last year will not face criminal charges in her death, according to the county prosecutor investigating the case.
Putnam County Prosecutor Mark Sorsaia determined the “tragic loss” of 13-year-old Jacqueline “Laney” Hudson in December 2022 was a “direct result” of erratic behavior caused by her being under the influence of alcohol and drugs, according to a Thursday letter clearing former Cabell County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeffrey Racer of negligence in her death.
That “severely affected her judgement and ability to make rational decisions, and subsequently led to her running in front of the car,” he wrote.
But the family’s lawyer Tyler Haslam said they still have questions that need answering, particularly how fast Racer was driving off-duty in a marked police car when Hudson died.
A state police accident reconstruction expert could not precisely determine how fast the cruiser was moving when it struck Hudson because its “black box” — which usually records that information — did not activate, according to Sorsaia.
In a statement released through Haslam, the 13-year-old’s loved ones said the were not surprised by the prosecutor’s decision.
“Racer’s actions precipitated the vehicular death of a juvenile pedestrian and left a family heartbroken,” they said. “Despite our disappointment about the special prosecutor’s decision, we remain steadfast in our pursuit of justice.”
The family said they “look forward to reviewing the State’s full investigation once it is released in order to compare it to our own.”
Hudson was killed on December 30, 2022 just after 10:30 p.m. in the state’s second largest city of Huntington — populated by just under 50,000 — where she was hanging out at an intersection with a group of teenagers.
Racer, who was placed on administrative leave after Hudson’s death and later resigned, was driving his cruiser off-duty to his girlfriend’s home because he wanted to have it in the morning when he was scheduled to start his shift, the prosecutor said.
Racer drove through the green light at the intersection when Hudson and another teen ran into the roadway, Sorsaia said. He tried stop to avoid the girls, but was unable to avoid hitting Hudson. He stayed on the scene and immediately called 911, according to the prosecutor.
A subsequent autopsy found the teen was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana at the time of her death, according to Sorsaia. Law enforcement officials said Hudson was intoxicated by beer and synthetic marijuana — drugs commonly known as K2 or spice — that she had smoked with a group of other teens and was “significantly impaired” when she and another teen ran into the street without warning.
A video taken off Hudson’s phone by state police after her death showed the kids running around in the street by the intersection even before Racer drove by.
“It is commonly known in law enforcement circles that when a young person smokes marijuana laced with K2, it can severely impact their behavior, impair their judgement and their physical actions,” Sorsaia wrote.
Two sobriety tests — including a preliminary breath test resulting in a .000 blood alcohol level — found that there was “no sign of impairment” in Racer’s case. The letter did not say when the sobriety tests were conducted.
The prosecutor found no cause for Racer to be charged under the state’s negligent homicide statute, which requires evidence of driving with “willful wanton disregard of the safety of others,” he said.
Even if he was speeding, that wouldn’t justify a negligent homicide charge, Sorsaia said.
“There must be a conscious decision made where one would know they are putting other lives at risk,” he wrote.
Estimates by state police reconstruction teams analyzing skid marks and other factors placed Racer’s speed between 47 and 55 miles per hour — at least 10 to 20 miles per hour over the speed limit.
Sorsaia said a later law enforcement survey using speed radar and conducted over the course of an hour at the intersection found the median speed of 63 vehicles to be 49 miles per hour.
Haslam, the attorney representing Hudson’s family, said his firm is conduction their own investigation and analyzing law enforcement’s findings.
“Quite frankly, I don’t care what the average speed is through that intersection. There’s a posted speed limit,” he told The Associated Press Friday. “We expect all citizens, but particularly those in marked patrol vehicles, to go the speed limit, absent some emergency. Very clearly from the report that came out yesterday, there was no emergency.”
A negligent homicide charge could have come with a penalty of a year of incarceration, a $100 to $1,000 fine, or both. Racer would also have had his driver’s license revoked.