Manslaughter Charge Dropped in Lansdowne Pedestrian Fatality

Loudoun County prosecutors this morning received approval from a Circuit Court judge to drop the involuntary manslaughter charge filed against the driver who struck and killed 5-month-old Tristan Schulz crossing the street in a stroller one year ago.

In a nolle prosequi motion filed by Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Sean Morgan on Aug. 30, the prosecutor states there is not enough evidence to support the charge against John Miller.

“This decision does not come lightly,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman told Judge Stephen E. Sincavage, while also acknowledging that the decision would not be publicly popular in the high-profile, heartbreaking case. However, Plowman said the evidence dictated the action.

Investigators say, on Aug. 31, 2016, Miller drove through the intersection on Riverside Parkway and Coton Manor Drive in Lansdowne, crashing into Mindy Schulz as she was pushing her infant son, Tristan, in a stroller through the crosswalk. The baby was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly after. Mindy Schulz was injured and released from the hospital after three days of treatment.

Early in the investigation and at the time that evidence was presented to a grand jury on Nov. 14, it was believed that Miller had been distracted by using one of his two mobile phones at the time of the crash. However, information obtained from the phone carriers and viewed by a battery of experts showed no evidence of texting or other phone use at the time of the crash.

At the time of the indictment, “the Commonwealth had records of the Sprint data transmission, which appeared to show the Defendant’s engagement with his cell phone. This was corroborated by one eyewitness’ statement that the Defendant was holding a cell phone while making the turn,” Morgan wrote. “However, the subsequent examination of the cell phone, which was not fully completed until April 27, 2017, revealed nothing more than the lone activity powering the phone.”

“As such, the Commonwealth’s case now consists of less evidence that was known at the time the Indictment was presented to the Grand Jury,” the motion reads.

To win an involuntary manslaughter verdict, prosecutors must prove that the driver’s conduct was “so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard of human life.”

In asking Judge Sincavage to approve the request to drop the charge, Plowman said the evidence no longer supports a case of aggravated recklessness.

Plowman said his office reached that conclusion after an “unparalleled” examination of Miller’s phone by experts using various forensic techniques, including the use of a “clone phone.” The conclusion was that there was no human interaction with the phone before the fatal crash.

Without evidence of an aggravating factor, such as distracted driving, Plowman said a manslaughter charge was unwarranted and unsupportable.

He said there is a general misconception that any fatal crash that involves evidence of reckless driving calls for a manslaughter charge. That’s not always true, Plowman said.

The motion cites numerous manslaughter convictions in highway fatality cases that were upheld—many involving high speeds and alcohol use—and others that were overturned—where the appeals court found the cases lacked such aggravating factors. It also highlights attorneys’ ethical standards that prohibit prosecutors from initiating or maintaining a charge “once he knows that the charge is not supported even by probable cause.”

Miller still faces charges of reckless driving and failure to yield to pedestrians in the case. A 10-day jury trial is scheduled to start Oct. 10.

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