HARRISONBURG — After two hours of deliberations Monday, a Rockingham County jury found a 17-year-old high school student who killed a 19-month-old Verona girl in a car wreck not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Robert McDonald, a Turner Ashby High School student, was on his way to school when the crash occurred that killed Kate Beagle last August.
During the trial that began Friday in Rockingham County Circuit Court, prosecutors claimed McDonald was speeding and had the radio blaring when he ran off the road.
But McDonald’s defense attorney, Aaron Cook, claimed the sun was in his client’s eyes. He said McDonald ran off the road because he was an inexperienced 16-year-old driver at the time of the wreck.
“The entire case has been a tragedy for both families,” Cook said following the trial. “There are no winners here.”
The crash occurred at about 8 a.m. on Aug. 31 near the intersection of Nutmeg Court and West Wind Drive, just west of Harrisonburg’s city limits. A Rockingham County school bus had picked up two children at the bus stop moments before.
McDonald’s Jeep Cherokee struck Beagle, her 3-year-old sister, two 2-year-old boys and a 2-year-old girl and their baby sitter, Kristina Glick, of Harrisonburg. A second adult, Oriana Good, of Harrisonburg, also was hit.
Beagle’s sister and the other bystanders were injured in the crash.
McDonald first went to trial in Rockingham County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on Jan. 7. Judge Ronald Napier found McDonald guilty during the bench trial and committed him to the Department of Juvenile Justice for an indefinite time.
Napier’s decision meant counselors at whatever facility McDonald was assigned to would determine how long he would be incarcerated.
The judge’s ruling, however, was appealed, which led to the teen’s retrial before a jury in circuit court.
During closing arguments, Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst deemed the wreck a tragedy.
“It’s a tragedy of the defendant’s making,” she told jurors. “This isn’t a mistake, it’s criminal negligence.”
Cook challenged Garst’s claims.
“There are accidents. ... Accidents can be accidents,” Cook told the jurors. “Every indicator points to minimal speed.”
Although several witnesses testified that McDonald was speeding, Cook pointed to the minimal damage done to the vehicle, minimal injuries to the adults and that it only took the vehicle 86 feet to stop as evidence McDonald wasn’t exceeding the subdivision’s 25 mph speed limit.
Following the jury’s verdict, Garst said the decision was unfortunate for Beagle’s loved ones.
“I’m disappointed for the family and I hope they have some healing,” she said.