- Associated Press - Friday, December 4, 2015

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s Supreme Court vacated a felony manslaughter conviction Friday for a dump truck driver who caused a fatal crash, saying the trial judge was wrong to allow two traffic infractions to serve as the basis for it.

The infractions by Lyle Carman - driving too fast for conditions and following too closely - were minor offenses that would allow only for a misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide conviction, the court said.

Carman was convicted last December in the June 7, 2012, crash near Lincoln that killed 23-year-old Raven Addy-Cruz of Kearney and seriously injured her husband and year-old daughter. He was sentenced earlier this year to 3 years’ probation and 90 days in jail, but that sentence was put on hold while he appealed.

At the time of the accident, Carman was driving a dump truck on Interstate 80 that was restricted to one lane for construction. He told investigators that he looked briefly at his mirrors, and when he looked up, Addy-Cruz’s car had stopped and he was unable to keep from crashing into it.

In its ruling Friday, the state Supreme Court said neither of the infractions for which Carman was convicted is punishable by imprisonment. Each infraction carries only a fine. The lower court had found that the infractions were unlawful acts that caused a death and, therefore, constituted the crime of manslaughter.

“It is apparent to this court that such traffic infractions are not the type of unlawful acts that were typically considered in connection with the crime of manslaughter,” Justice John Wright wrote.

Prosecutors argued that any unlawful act that causes the death of another is sufficient under state law to charge a person with manslaughter. But the high court said public welfare offenses such as traffic infractions don’t contain the element of criminal intent necessary to support a manslaughter conviction.

“Our analysis points us toward the conclusion that momentary inattentiveness and minor traffic violations do not involve the culpability … required to convict one of felony manslaughter,” Wright said. “This rationale was espoused more than 70 years earlier when it was observed that the term ‘manslaughter’ imports a degree of brutality which jurors generally do not care to cast upon a merely negligent driver, and society is often unwilling to condemn as a felon one who is guilty only of some act of negligence, even though that act has resulted in the death of another.”

Carman’s attorney, Robert Creager of Lincoln, said Friday that the ruling sets a precedent for prosecutors to follow in future crash fatality cases.

“This case sort of clears up … a lot of ambiguity and a lot of questions as to what is the prosecutor’s real discretion here to form the charge (of manslaughter),” Creager said.

Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly did not immediately return a message Friday to answer whether his office can and will file a misdemeanor charge against Carman.

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