In September 2014, a semi truck veered across the median in the Arbuckle Mountains, shearing off the side of a bus carrying the members of the North Central Texas College softball team. Four young women, aged 18 to 20, died in the accident.
The driver, Russell Staley, claimed that he was distracted while reaching for a cooler to retrieve a soft drink. However, the presence of a pipe with synthetic marijuana residue and Staley's past history of K2 use seemed to indicate something other than distraction was responsible for the deadly crash. In November 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released the results of its investigation into the crash, finding that the probable cause of the accident was failure to control the vehicle "due to incapacitation likely stemming from his use of synthetic cannabinoids."
Staley was named as a defendant in several lawsuits blaming him for the crash, and he was charged in June 2015 with four counts of first degree manslaughter.
In December, Staley waived his right to a jury trial, and his case was set for bench trial on March 8.
Now, that trial will never take place.
According to reports by the Dallas Morning News, Staley, 55, died Friday. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner ruled the manner of death to be suicide.
In Oklahoma, first degree manslaughter is a felony. It is designated as a violent crime subject to the "Eighty-Five Percent Rule." This means that a person convicted of first degree manslaughter or any of the violent felonies stipulated in 21 O.S. § 13.1 must serve a minimum of 85 percent of the sentence handed down by the judge before having even the possibility of parole.
First degree manslaughter occurs under the following conditions, according to state law:
Homicide is manslaughter in the first degree in the following cases:
1. When perpetrated without a design to effect death by a person while engaged in the commission of a misdemeanor.
2. When perpetrated without a design to effect death, and in a heat of passion, but in a cruel and unusual manner, or by means of a dangerous weapon; unless it is committed under such circumstances as constitute excusable or justifiable homicide.
3. When perpetrated unnecessarily either while resisting an attempt by the person killed to commit a crime, or after such attempt shall have failed. ( 21 O.S.§ 711)
Because driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a misdemeanor on the first offense, a fatal DUI accident is "perpetrated . . . in the commission of a misdemeanor," and thus an act of first degree manslaughter. However, since repeat DUI is a felony, a person who is involved in a fatal DUI accident during his or her second or subsequent DUI is charged with second degree murder.
Manslaughter Laws in Oklahoma
The penalty for first degree manslaughter in Oklahoma is a minimum of four years in prison, with no maximum stipulated under the law. In this case, Staley would have the potential penalty for each of the four deaths occurring in the accident. While a judge could have ordered the minimum sentence for each charge and ordered them to run concurrently, it is more likely that, given the nature of the accident, he would have faced much steeper penalties.
Instead, the defendant rendered his own judgement, choosing to take his own life rather than face a judge's verdict.
Facing serious criminal charges can be devastating, frightening, and overwhelming; however, defense options are available, and a self-imposed death penalty is not the best way to handle the situation. To speak to an experienced criminal defense team about your case, call (405) 418-8888.
Image credit: DEA.gov