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Man Sentenced in OHP Trooper's Distracted Driving Death

18-Dec-2015

On Thursday, Seminole County District Judge George W. Butner handed down the sentence of a Cushing man convicted of manslaughter after killing a state trooper while texting and driving.

Early this year, Oklahoma Highway Patrol Troopers Keith Burch and Nicholas Dees were investigating an overturned tractor-trailer truck along I-40 near Shawnee, when a vehicle driven by Steven W. Clark failed to yield to traffic signals or merge into the right lane to avoid the accident. Clark drove his car into the troopers, killing Trooper Dees and injuring Trooper Burch. Investigators determined that Clark was texting while driving at the time of the accident.

A proposed bill to prohibit texting while driving was named after the two troopers, and on November 1,  the Trooper Nicholas Dees and Keith Burch Act of 2015 took effect. The law makes texting while driving--including sending, receiving, or composing text or email messages--a primary offense, punishable by a $100 fine.

Clark, the driver in the accident for which the law was named, was charged with first degree manslaughter, a felony punishable by a minimum of 4 years in prison. In August, he pleaded guilty.

At a sentencing hearing recently, Clark's defense attorney asked for leniency, indicating that his client did not have a prior criminal record and just made a costly mistake. He addressed the court, saying, "We've all been distracted drivers. Thank God we didn't all kill people."

Prosecutors, however, said that Clark admitted to a history of dangerous distracted driving, and noted that he had sent at least 69 texts during his drive prior to hitting the troopers. They asked the judge to sentence him to 20 years in prison.

And even 20 years would not have been enough for the family of Trooper Dees; his mother told reporters, "Anything less than life is unacceptable to me."

Yesterday, Judge Butner determined the sentence Clark would have to serve: 5 years in prison followed by 7 years of probation, with credit for time served. During his probation, Clark will neither be allowed to drive nor to own a cellphone, with the exception of one that can only be used to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency.

Trooper Dees's wife left the courtroom in tears upon hearing the sentence, his mother said she was "upset" with the sentence, and his father told reporters, "It won't bring Nick back, but Mr. Clark's family is devastated, too. We all are. ... I pray for his family, as well as ours. It is what it is."

Judge Butner pointed out the difficulties in determining a fair sentence for Clark--some people thought he should be released; others thought he should serve life behind bars. Butner said the sentence he decided was an attempt to balance justice and mercy.



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