Way back at my first newspaper job, what started out as a simple attempt by a lawyer to wiggle out of a speeding ticket turned into a 12 hour ordeal.
The story about the longest speeding ticket trial in West Virginia state history won first place in the 1990 West Virginia Press Association contest for the year.
Mineral Daily News-Tribune, Dec. 11, 1989
Guilty verdict ends long speeding trial
By Steve Campbell
The longest speeding ticket trial in the county, possibly the state, ended with a guilty verdict Saturday night in Mineral County magistrate court.
Tucker County magistrate Jane Barb presided over the jury trial of Martinsburg lawyer Steven M. Askin.
The saga began back on Oct. 14, 1988, when West Virginia state trooper S.C. Tucker clocked Askin in his 1987 Lincoln doing 70 miles an hour in a 55 mile an hour zone on Route 46 east of Keyser.
The lawyer entered a not guilty plea before magistrate Dave Harman on Oct. 27, 1988.
Over the next 14 months the case was postponed 11 times for various reasons including both the plaintiff’s and the state’s witness’s appearance in court for other matters.
One continuance because of a family vacation was refused by the court. The next day, Askin’s attorney was granted a postponement because of a doctor’s appointment for his son.
Both Mineral County magistrates were removed from the trail. Harman because of a conflict of interest involving another case, and magistrate Lois Kesner because of the defendant’s claim that she was prejudiced.
A last ditch effort Friday to have the case thrown out of court by the state supreme court was refused and the trial remained scheduled for Saturday morning.
Saturday morning a jury of five women and one man was selected and by 11 a.m. the trial got underway.
Representing the state was Mineral County assistant prosecuting attorney Kelley Kuhn.
She called Tucker as her only witness.
Tucker described his qualifications to use radar equipment, how the machine worked and the procedures he followed on the night Askin was ticketed.
The trooper said that he was driving west toward Keyser on Route 46 shortly after 9 in the evening.
It was dark and as he passed the carwash a few miles outside of Keyser, he saw headlights coming in the opposite direction.
He said the approaching vehicle looked as if it was traveling in excess of the posted speed of 55 miles and hour. The radar unit gave a reading of 70 miles an hour.
Tucker said he switched on his emergency lights, made a u-turn, caught up with Askin, who had slowed down by this time, and issued the ticket.
On cross examination, defense lawyer V. Alley Riley questioned the radar device’s accuracy, citing an example from the radar unit owner’s manual which described a palm being clocked traveling at 86 miles an hour.
Tucker said that the tree was not clocked at 86 miles an hour, but that the reading was caused by distortion and interference from electronic sources which affected the unit’s reading.
No such distortion was apparent on the night in question and the reading that night was made under “almost ideal” conditions.
Riley then questioned the accuracy of the police cruiser’s speedometer, nothing that the vehicle had been in two wrecks prior to the night Askins was stopped and had not been recalibrated since.
He also challenged the procedures used to test the radar unit before it was put into service at the beginning of the trooper’s shift.
A series of four test is conducted on the machine. One involves using tuning forks to make sure it is giving the proper speed reading.
Riley said the tuning forks had not been calibrated and that the whole process involves using the machine to test the forks and then the forks to test the machine.
The defense attorney asked Tucker if he had been trained how to testify at speeding trials.
Tucker said “yes.”
Then Riley read a portion of the manual which advises police officers to say the machine was operating correctly.
“Don’t they say testify that it is pointed straight ahead,” Riley said.
Prosecuting attorney Kuhn asked the officer if he was trained to lie on the witness stand.
He answered that he was not.
“Aren’t you trained just the opposite?” Kuhn said.
“Yes,” he said.
The testimony ended at about 1:30 in the afternoon and the jury was sent to lunch.
At 2:30, the lawyers for both sides and the judge went into the jury room to discuss instructions to the jury that the magistrate would issue before the six were sent to deliberate.
Magistrate Barb, as she left the courtroom said, “we’ll go over here and you folks can have the rest of the building.”
The court clerk, a bailiff, court reporter and a News-Tribune reporter began exchanging small talk with the unsequestered jury.
Another state police officer, R.J. Claus, came into the room and offered everyone a piece of Christmas candy from a jar he had found in the clerk’s lunch room.
The conversation and small talk continued until one by one, the clerk, court reporter, newspaper reporter and bailiff were called into the jury room to testify before the magistrate and lawyers whether Claus had spoken to the jury and whether it was prejudiced if he had done so.
That process took up the next five hours.
Everyone interviewed reported that the officer hand not spoken individually or directly to the jury and doubted any affect on the five women and one man jury.
It was learned that the defense was seeking to have a mistrial declared on the grounds Claus had attempted to influence the jury.
Finally after all the interviews, the trial resumed at 8:30 p.m.. No mistrial was declared and the jury remained ignorant of the reason for the five-hour wait.
At 9:15 the jury went into deliberations and 15 minutes later pronounced a guilty verdict.
After over 12 hours in the windowless courtroom, the jury was sent home.
Magistrate Barb pronounced a sentence of a $75 fine and $416 in court cost.
Askin has 90 days to pay the fine before his license to drive is revoked.
Riley told the court he and his client would decide whether to appeal the verdict.
Magistrate Kesner said the trial was the first time in nine years that a speeding trial had gone to a jury trial in Mineral County.
“This has to be the longest speeding ticket trial in state history,” Riley said.