Charges Dropped in Landmark Case
The whole tragic thing started with a middle-of-the-night telephone call. His best friend had been charged with driving drunk. Could Kenneth Powell come pick him up at the police station?
Powell did, setting in motion a chain of events that left two people dead, a third critically injured and Powell blamed for a head-on collision caused by the friend Powell had taken back to his vehicle.
On Friday, a judge dismissed all charges against the unemployed 41-year-old laborer, closing the book on a 2 1/2-year prosecution that posed novel legal questions that ultimately went unresolved.
"I always felt that I was not responsible. That's what got me through this," said Powell. "I realize there was a lot of pressure by the state to lay some blame somewhere. I'm just sorry it had to be me."
The crash was horrific enough: On July 22, 2000, a Chevrolet Blazer driven by Michael Pangle, 37, of Woodstown, crossed the center line on U.S. 40 near Woodstown and collided head-on with a Nissan.
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Killed were Pangle and U.S. Navy Ensign John R. Elliott, 22, who was driving home to his mother's 51st birthday party. Elliott's girlfriend, Kristen Hohenwarter, suffered head injuries but survived.
Moments after the crash, Powell drove up on the scene and told police that Pangle had been arrested for DUI earlier after registering 0.21 on a blood-alcohol test and released by police.
Powell, who had been home asleep, was called to retrieve Pangle from the state police barracks in Bridgeton after he was charged.
But instead of driving him home, Powell drove Pangle back to his truck, which had been left at the site of his roadside arrest.
Powell, who was arrested at the scene, was charged with manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault by prosecutors who said putting Pangle back behind the wheel was like playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun.
Pangle's blood-alcohol content was 0.26 when he died, but prosecutors never established how or where he drank more after the arrest.
Still, it was a groundbreaking case: According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and legal experts, no one had ever been charged in a friend's crash who had no ownership or control of the vehicle involved and hadn't served alcohol to the driver.
But jurors in two successive trials could not agree on whether Powell -- who faced up to 15 years in prison -- could be punished for his friend's mistake.
The first jury voted to acquit Powell of manslaughter but was deadlocked on the other two charges. A judge subsequently dropped the manslaughter count, but jurors in the second trial were hung again, this time on vehicular homicide and aggravated assault.
"We will never quite know why and what the jury's thinking was on the novel questions that were presented," said Superior Court Judge William Forester.
Finally, prosecutors agreed to drop the charges rather than try him a third time.
However, Powell has been named in civil suits filed by the Elliott and Hohenwarter families, but he says the blame belongs to the bars that served Pangle. They, too, are defendants.
"I've told Carl I'd work with the Elliott family if they wanted to, do what I can to go after the bars. That's where it started," Powell said.
Author: Copyright 2002 by NBC 10. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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