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Montgomery Sentencing Sparks an Outcry; Officials Want Tougher Laws After Driver Paid $500 Fine in Pedestrian Death

Montgomery County officials are calling for tougher penalties in traffic fatalities after an Adelphi man paid a $500 fine after pleading guilty this week to reckless driving in the death of a pedestrian on Rockville Pike.

Christopher Brockman, 20, entered the guilty plea Monday in Montgomery County Circuit Court in the death Dec. 21 of 30-year-old Kyoko Matsushima, who was crossing Rockville Pike at Tuckerman Lane with her husband when she was hit by Brockman’s truck.

Prosecutors last month tried Brockman on manslaughter charges — something they rarely do in fatal car accidents unless a defendant was intoxicated. But the jury deadlocked, and prosecutors and defense attorneys worked out a plea agreement. A manslaughter conviction could have sent Brockman to prison for as long as 10 years.

Prosecutors argued during the trial that Brockman had been speeding and weaving in and out of traffic, ran a red light and then struck Matsushima.

Pedestrian accidents have been a hot issue in Montgomery, where last year, 17 pedestrians were killed by cars, two more than the number of people killed in homicides.

“A woman is dead because of this guy’s knowingly egregious behavior, and the law doesn’t allow for criminal sanctions with any teeth in it,” Montgomery State’s Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said yesterday.

A manslaughter charge requires prosecutors to prove that the defendant was grossly negligent and had a disregard for human life, something Gansler said is a tough standard.

Gansler and other prosecutors have been lobbying the General Assembly to allow drivers who commit two traffic offenses — from a list of 17 — and caused a fatal accident to be charged with homicide by aggressive driving, which would be easier to prove than manslaughter. Most drivers, prosecutors said, would not be affected because many fatalities are accidents, rather than the result of aggressive driving.

Barry Helfand, Brockman’s attorney, said that Matsushima’s death was simply an accident.Helfand said the current manslaughter statute was sufficient.

“These people are not really killers,” Helfand said. “They didn’t intend to do it.”

A spokesman for County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said that he supports tougher sanctions. Yesterday, Duncan announced additional efforts to increase safety, including a $40,000 grant from the Maryland State Highway Administration for expanded traffic safety enforcement, which began last month.

Duncan already has included $1.2 million in his current budget to increase the number of red-light cameras from 20 to 35, add a safety coordinator for pedestrian and bicycle safety and hire a traffic analyst, among other initiatives.

This year, 11 pedestrians have been killed, a 35 percent drop from last year, which Duncan and Police Chief Charles A. Moose attributed to increased enforcement and education.

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"I have watched Mr. Helfand in trial and in negotiations. He is remarkable. Mr. Helfand is extremely knowledgeable in the law, and even more knowledgeable in the ways to deal with people." Afshin Pishevar, Criminal Defense Attorney in Rockville, MD
"I strongly endorse this lawyer. I have known Mr. Helfand for many years. We have worked together on cases and represented conflicting parties. I have watched Mr. Helfand in trial and in negotiations. He is remarkable." David Felsen, Criminal Defense Attorney in Rockville, MD
"It’s one of the biggest cases that’s been tried in Montgomery County in a long time,” said Steve VanGrack, a Rockville lawyer considering a Democratic bid for state’s attorney." Washington Post